If you're a sitcom, you do a Valentine's Day episode. If you're a family sitcom, your Valentine's Day episode revolves around a married couple trying to recapture the romantic spark by throwing a little kink into their sex life. No surprises so far. But if you're Modern Family, you have Phil Dunphy to play a role in that old storyline. It may not be the freshest idea in the world, but I haven't laughed this hard at a sitcom in a long time.
The twist that makes this work outside of one scene of hapless would-be suavitude is Claire's simultaneous desire to explore roleplaying, and her certain knowledge that it is not Phil she wants to do it with. From the moment Phil responds to her suggestion with "You're about to wake a sexy sleeping giant," attempting a flirtatious fingers-to-chin gesture, Claire is rolling her eyes and irritably batting his hand away. Her whole attitude toward the experiment is "Don't ruin it."
And of course, Phil ruins it, because he thinks it's all about him. "I'm Clive ... Clive Bixby," he announces, coming into the hotel bar in a blazer, turtleneck, and stick-on name badge. When asked his line of work, he spins a sentence about acoustics enhancement, then purrs, "it's a fancy way of saying I get things to make noise." Claire can barely hold it together at that point, but they actually have to break character and start over when "Clive" is asked to explain why he, a married man, is flirting with a strange women in a bar. "Because she's tired all the time and she's always making lists of things for me to do," he explains. "Maybe she wouldn't be so tired if you would do them," Claire suggests through gritted teeth. "Oh no, she can make lists for days," Phil continues, oblivious.
It's Claire's show, though, and Phil has to do very little but shut up and hold out his hands for the dress, bra, and underwear that Claire delivers to him after emerging from the bathroom in nothing but a trenchcoat. Naturally it all has to go very, very badly, and naturally that involves stairs -- actually escalators this time -- Phil's old nemesis. I liked Claire's determined way of sticking to her "I'm quite cold" story when repeatedly urged to take off her coat in order to extricate herself from the fix. And given her determination to forge ahead with the romantic scenario despite all the fiascos in getting there, maybe it's not surprising that she and Phil got their night in the hotel room, complete with oil that Phil managed to get all over the sheets. ("Not our sheets, though!" he laughs in the epilogue, as his confused/horrified children listen in on the hands-free speaker.)
Jay and Gloria's storyline is paper-thin wrapping for a guest star. Jay gets Gloria tickets to see David Brenner ("Only a Vegas legend!" he protests when she is disappointed it's not a salsa-dancing excursion. But the tables are turned when Brenner starts needling Jay for being an old man escorting a younger woman, causing Jay to lose confidence and flee the room. It's not much, but it has a tiny, satisfying payoff when Gloria helps Claire out of her trapped trenchcoat and into a different coat without any skin showing. "That is impressive," Phil murmurs. "Take it down a notch, Clive," Jay growls.
Almost as good as the Phil/Claire roleplaying plotline is Cam's scheme to help Manny have the Valentine's Day he planned. Manny shows up dejected because a poem he wrote for the cutest girl in school got appropriated by his classmate Durkiss, who stole Manny's plan to take her to Manny's favorite restaurant, Great Shakes. (How did Durkiss know about the restaurant? It was in the poem, "right after the line 'My love is deeper than the Great Lakes,'" explains Manny.) Since Cam's hopes for a romantic evening with Mitchell were scotched by a setback at Mitchell's job, Cam decides to help Manny out by taking the whole show on the road to Great Shakes, then calling Durkiss and posing as a Great Shakes survey researcher with a Southern accent to lure the poetry thief away from the booth where he's sharing a malt with the object of Manny's affection. Manny makes his move: "You have a laugh that can make science lab seem like recess," he tells her. Heck, that would work on me.
If you've ever seen a sitcom, you know that Mitchell will get to swoop in and give the closing argument he wasn't able to give in court, the one he poured his heart and soul into. But only on Modern Family does Mitchell dramatically enact the climax of his closing, where he points at the state seal and shouts, "SHAME!" Nothing new about these storylines. But it's not about the situation -- it's about the comedy. And what we have here are comic actors playing characters -- especially Mitchell, Cam, and Phil -- that can make everything old new again.
- The Dunphy Valentine's Day ritual involves exchanging cards, simultaneous awww's, and going to the same family-style Italian restaurant seventeen years in a row. Hello, cannoli canoe!
- Dylan can trump that: a photograph of himself and Haley half-naked in bed turned into a painting on the computer! At least he knows enough to compliment his girlfriend's mom: "All women should look as tasty as you when they're old."
- "I'm not letting you get any sleep tonight. So you might want to take a nap at work." "I alllllways do!"
- Manny isn't excited about taking on Durkiss: "I've seen the kid do a pull-up."
- Mitchell isn't thrilled by Cam and Manny's spy jargon: "Let's not talk like that anymore, over."
- "C'mon up -- treat them like they're regular stairs."