I realize I'm pretty much the only person who thinks this, but I'd argue Modern Family has quietly been putting together a second season that's even better than its first (well, as quietly as a show with as good of ratings as this one can do). The season has yet to have an episode as strong as the strongest two or three from season one, though the Halloween episode and last week's came close, but it's also been far more consistent in quality. The producers obviously took a look at what did and didn't work in the first season and doubled down on the good stuff, while also making a few minor tweaks around the edges. The most prominent complaint against the show is that it forces the sentimentality, but the big, sappy speeches have mostly been missing this year, the show instead choosing to end episodes with honest, earned moments of sentiment. (The finale of the Halloween episode, wherein the family executed Claire's plan perfectly and we saw not the plan but her reaction to it, was a masterful version of this particular form.) In addition, the cast has been better-served across the board, as characters the writers had trouble writing for last season (like the Dunphy daughters) routinely draw laughs now.
At the same time, Modern Family doesn't aim as high as a lot of other comedies. It pretty much just wants to tell some funny stories about the family at its center and make us laugh in how we relate to those families. Where both Community and Cougar Town have spent the early part of this season pushing past their season one heights and trying even harder to come up with great stories and great jokes, Modern Family is content to just do what it does and do it well. That, I think, accounts for some of the disappointment I've seen surrounding the season in some circles. The surprise of the first season, the surprise that a sophisticated, funny, smart family comedy could still be written, is mostly gone, and a lot of people are realizing that at some base level, Modern Family is just a pretty typical sitcom.
But when you're a "pretty typical sitcom" and you have characters as engaging as these and joke writing as solid as this (there are few jokes on this show that don't prompt at least a "Hey, that was funny" reaction because they're all so well crafted), it doesn't matter that no one involved is really taking chances with the form. Take tonight's episode, "Mother Tucker," wherein Haley and her parents deal with her break-up with Dylan, Cameron's mother visits, and Jay has a health scare his wife doesn't take seriously. Not a one of these plots is something you couldn't have seen on I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show (well, neither of those shows featured teenage daughters), and the joys that come from seeing the various families interact in amusing ways are mostly absent from the episode. But everything is carried off so skillfully that it doesn't matter. You're still laughing.
Take, for instance, that Haley and Dylan plot. Haley's been making out with her tutor, and her mother seizes the opportunity to get Haley to break up with Dylan. (Julie Bowen ramping up Claire's dislike of Dylan to near-maniacal levels has been a surprisingly understated highlight of the season.) Dylan's broken up about this, but so is Phil, and he takes the boy under his wing to let him know that there are other fish in the sea and he should move on with his life and all of those other old chestnuts. To a degree, this is just an excuse to give Ty Burrell plenty of opportunity to seem weird, something he does very well, but it also gets in some solid laughs for Haley, who has gone from a generic teen girl to someone with an actual personality this season. And this section probably has the highest ratio of good jokes to mediocre ones, with Phil's jacket and weird, pseudo-date with Dylan providing the most laughs. I sometimes worry the show relies too heavily on jokes about dumb and/or oblivious people, but, hey, the writers are really good at these kinds of jokes, as they proved yet again with all of Dylan's lines.
Meanwhile, Cam's mom is visiting the Tucker-Pritchett household, and she's played by Celia Weston. Celia Weston is a versatile, funny actress, and she probably deserved a better character type than "handsy old lady," but I still really enjoyed the way that her touching seemed to get more and more aggressive every time Mitchell was in close proximity to her and that Cameron was completely oblivious. There's not really a lot TO this story. Mitchell tells Cameron his mother is fond of fondling, and then mom walks in at just the wrong moment (of course), but the relationship between the two is so well-defined at this point that, honestly, the show could probably just coast with them and come out ahead. Instead, we get a nicely tuned story about how Cameron objects to Mitchell's characterization of his mother, with a very sweet moment at the end, when mom tries to apologize to Mitchell and, instead, wanders into the most inappropriate situation of all.
The Jay storyline wasn't as strong and got reduced to a bit of a runner, but it was fun to see Jay treat Manny like he might treat an actual doctor (even calling him away from his session on the miniature golf course). The ending was, again, nicely done, as Gloria found herself frightened that the appendicitis everyone watching knew Jay's condition had to be would take his life and it would all be her fault. Of the three storylines, this was easily my least favorite (perhaps because I have less patience for "when I lived in Colombia" jokes from Gloria than a lot of fans do), but there were still some great lines here and there, like Gloria lamenting how she keeps almost killing her husbands.
All in all, "Mother Tucker" wasn't the strongest episode of this show ever, but it was solid across the board, with more than enough laughs to buoy it along. Where last week's episode was a classic of the show's particular form, this one was just the show turning out an enjoyable half-hour of pre-Thanksgiving comedy (and why hasn't this show done a hardcore Thanksgiving episode just yet?). On the night before Thanksgiving last year, Modern Family turned out "Fizbo," and while that remains the show's best episode, I'm impressed by how this episode continued season two's streak of improvements. All three stories have nice moments, the sentiment at the end isn't forced, and characters who might have been one-note last season, like Haley, get laughs of their very own. Modern Family's improvements have been more cosmetic and around the edges than some other shows, but they've made a show that was already very good into one that takes that small next step up.
- You may have noticed that I'm not Donna. She's out saving Thanksgiving for our upcoming special, The A.V. Club Saves Thanksgiving, so you have to put up with me. Boo. Hiss.
- Apparently, Donna has this "The Week in Gloria" feature, and I aim to please. This week in Gloria: Not a lot is going on, but that outfit of hers DID seem to rather selectively highlight a particular physical feature.
- And here I was excited to talk about how I think the show has taken a step up in season two, and I didn't get to say a thing about my new favorite character, Luke, who's gone from dumb kid to potentially INSANE kid this season. I don't think he was in the episode at all, unless I'm forgetting a short scene or something.
- Obvious but funny: Dylan says he keeps seeing Haley's face everywhere, then keeps running into photos of her.
- Cameron CLAIMS to be from Missour-ee, but every time he talks about it, it sounds like Missour-ah. Details, people!
- "How do we know the right Middle Eastern businessman wouldn't treat her great?"
- "It's got a very vibrant cowboy poetry scene."
- "IF I had one complaint ... and I do."
- "It was like she was blind and wanted to know what my thighs looked like."
- "I was a lot like you in high school ... except my hair was shorter, and my guitar was a flute."
- "I know a guy who can get me a pet bobcat."
- "His car is 30 years old and doesn't have a muffler. And he honked."