“Las Vegas” is the first episode of Modern Family’s fifth season that I had especially high hopes for, because... y’know, Las Vegas. Vegas is an error-proof backdrop for comedy, because it permits flexibility with the characters. The city flaunts its reputation as a quasi-deity that demands you sacrifice your judgment and conscience in tribute to its garden of grubby delights. With that as the baseline, there are endless directions to take these characters.
That said, “Las Vegas” surpassed my expectations. I presumed I’d like it, but I thought I would like it about as much as I’ve liked the rest of this season’s episodes just because I’m so fond of the setting. But this is the second episode of the season (the first was “The Old Man And The Tree”) that I’d feel comfortable putting up against anything in this show’s first two seasons. It clips along at an incredible pace, and it swells to a satisfying crescendo.
The satisfying crescendo was once Modern Family’s bread-and-butter, but the most recent examples haven’t worked as well as they once did. That is, until “Las Vegas,” which boasts a third act that is like a master class in controlled chaos. The episode starts out a little slowly, but reveals itself to be so marvelously constructed that its blemishes become hard to notice.
“Las Vegas” is an interesting episode for a variety of reasons, one being the less-is-more aspect of an adults-only episode. The challenge Modern Family presents is how to combine its characters in ways that feel fresh and make sense for the story. That’s hard enough for a sitcom about sexy 20-something singles working an office job together, but for a show about a multi-generational, multi-racial family, it’s especially difficult. The writers can’t randomly draw character names out of a hat and watch the story write itself.
I can’t help but wonder if Modern Family’s slow march into lethargy has less to do with recent, individual choices and more to do with the show’s basic premise, which is not self-limiting, but it’s certainly restricting. Part of what made “Las Vegas” so much fun was that it felt like the show had taken off the parking brake just by giving the kids a week off. You can’t really make a show about parenting without the kids, but having them out of sight was surprisingly energizing.
“Las Vegas” is also interesting because of its more-is-more aspect: an inspired trio of guest stars in Fred Armisen, Patton Oswalt and Stephen Merchant. All three earned their paychecks, but the gold star has to go to Merchant, whose weirdly enthusiastic butler Leslie Higgins is among the finest guest performances the show has seen. Higgins is a character that could have easily come across more like an inventory of qualities than like an actual human being. But Merchant lent Higgins some weight.
The Higgins character is indicative of the absurdity that makes “Las Vegas” such a delight. The script, penned by a trio of long-time ModFam staffers Paul Corrigan, Brad Walsh and Bill Wrubel, is one of the weirdest in the show’s history. In addition to the creepy omnipresence of Higgins, the episode features Rebarka, Barkley the Dog Butler’s female counterpart, a Scottish-themed male revue called The Kilty Pleasures and Phil’s induction into a secret society of sad magicians. Oh, and Jay’s Kafkaesque ordeal with the multi-tiered Excelsior loyalty program.
There’s so much to pack in, “Las Vegas” dispenses with the “Hey guys, how about a weekend getaway?” drum-rolling and gets right down to business, with the Dunphy-Pritchett couples in the Mandalay Bay staying in a connected suite of rooms courtesy of Jay’s closet client. The beginning of the episode feels a little bumpy, especially with Gloria trying to prevent Jay from buying Rebarka, which feels immediately tiresome.
But it proved worth it when the stories collided in the suite in a third act that was as sharp and confident as anything Modern Family has done. This is the type of experimentation that will buy Modern Family as much creative adoration as commercial success, even as it ages.
- Higgins, on the luxury bath choices: “Our Pharoah’s Fantasy does take a dash longer, as our Nubian lives off-site.” I want a Higgins spin-off.
- Mitchell’s wistful riff on “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” was pretty hysterical.
- “Las Vegas, you have a gambling problem. And her name is Claire.”
- I complain about the show’s reliance on gay puns, but I enjoyed the Kilty Pleasures.
- Ty Burrell’s commitment to Phil’s line rifling off the names of the magic legends is yet another example of why he’s this show’s greatest weapon.