Anybody up for a good, old-fashioned class action lawsuit? I don’t mind serving as the named plaintiff, if it’s easier for everybody, but the situation is this: Modern Family ricochets between excellence and mediocrity so quickly and so often, I can’t be the only one suffering from whiplash going into the final stretch of season five. Neck braces aren’t that expensive, but it’s the principle. The writers had to know going from “Sleeper,” arguably the worst episode of the show’s entire run, to “Message Received,” a solid contender for its all-time best, would produce a level of G force no human can safely withstand. They knew. They did nothing.
But it’s impossible to dwell on “Sleeper,” or the rest of season five’s troughs, after watching “Message Received,” an episode capable of single-handedly reminding the once-faithful, now-agnostic Modern Family fan why the show became a phenomenon. Considering all the grousing I’ve done about the show’s tendency to coast on the goodwill it built in its stellar first and second seasons, “Message Received” is a compelling reminder of how that cache of goodwill was built in the first place.
This episode came just in time, considering “Las Vegas” had been the season’s strongest, funniest installment to date. And as much of a triumph as “Las Vegas” was, it was also an total outlier, an experiment in structural ambition that worked in large part because nearly half the regular cast members were entirely missing from it. It was a classically executed sitcom, but wasn’t classic Modern Family. “Message Received” is the genuine article.
It comes as no surprise the episode was written by co-creator Steven Levitan, making this only the sixth episode in Modern Family’s five seasons to be solely credited to him. And what it difference it makes, especially in terms of tone, as “Message Received” is one of the first episodes in ages to feel like it contains the same version of the characters seen in the pilot. Manny is persnickety. Luke is daffy, as opposed to skirting brain death. Mitchell and Cam are a loving gay couple, not asexual frenemies two squabbles away from a murder-suicide.
Most importantly, Jay is a father who loves his gay son but can’t begin to understand what Mitchell’s identity as a gay man actually means on a practical level. And normally, Jay isn’t confronted with any of the ground-level stuff, but Mitchell and Cam’s upcoming wedding is forcing him to see the situation through a new lens, and he and Mitch are equally uncomfortable with his reaction to it.
These characterizations could have felt reversionary if handled incorrectly, but here they felt familiar in a good way. It helped that Levitan’s script also nailed Modern Family’s familiar rhythms, including a simple, one-family cold open and plenty of talking-head zingers. “Message Received” is also the perfect combination of sweet and tart; there’s a montage with voiceover to cap the episode, but it’s Mitchell on Phil’s old answering machine, explaining that Jay is going to be Jay and not to take it personally.
Maybe it was Phil’s undergrad-era answering machine, hard evidence of who these characters used to be, that made their return to form feel so organic here. Claire wasn’t always so neurotic, Mitchell wasn’t always so out, and Phil... okay, so Phil has remained pretty constant, but that answering machine still made for a nifty framing tool for the Phil and Claire and Mitch and Cam stories.
Jay, Gloria, and Manny’s story was slight, but I actually loved how low-concept it was, and like the rest of “Message Received,” it was just really funny. In particular, Sofia Vergara nailed Gloria’s aversion to rubbing Stella’s multi-nippled belly, a quibble even passionate dog lovers can sort of understand intellectually, if not emotionally.
Given how well this episode worked, I still can’t help but mourn a little for the mostly lost opportunity that is Modern Family’s fifth season. Mitch and Cam’s wedding could and should have been a powerful tool for framing the entire season, but it’s been easy to forget they’re even getting married. That’s partly to do with how catty they are toward each other in most of the season’s scripts, but also because the wedding has existed mostly at the fringes. As a result, a season that could have built a head of steam as it progressed only just now, with two episodes to go, feels like it’s leading up to something great.
But hey, better late than never.
- A sarcastic Manny, on how Jay’s pickle challenge will broaden his social standing: “You mean all the cool kids, with their leather jackets and their pickles?”
- Bjork. Sleepless In Seattle. Zima. Ain’t no party like a Phil Dunphy party, and so on.
- Alex: “I can’t believe they kept it.” Haley: “I have a name.”
- I know I said I’d stop dwelling on “Sleeper,” but I was so delighted by how Mitch confronted Jay. That is not the same person who threw an infantile tantrum because someone thought he knows how to play piano.