Good things happen when you get all the Modern Family characters in the same place at the same time. That goes double if the place is a roller rink. In “My Hero,” almost everything MF can do right, it does right. And all this in the third episode from the end of the season, not a big showpiece of a finale or a holiday special. It’s a reminder of how the right setting and structure can open up possibilities for simple, uncomplicated, well-crafted comedy.
What’s even better is that the whole ensemble shows up at the roller rink in the service of a gag. Mitch and Cam run into Mitch’s ex-boyfriend Teddy, now a doctor, and when Teddy invites them to a charity benefit at the Skate-O-Rama, Cam ostentatiously shows off his absence of jealousy by accepting on the benefit of the family. Then at the rink, it turns out that the Pritchetts and the Dunphys are well acquainted with Teddy, hanging with him on a regular basis, and Cam finds it impossible not to take offense at the way Mitchell’s family is “cheating on him with your ex-boyfriend.” The joke really takes off when Cam tops the list of family members who know and love Teddy with “your cousin Pete!” and we see Pete jovially skating by in the background giving a friendly wave.
The togetherness is uncomfortable for Claire, who has been avoiding her dad since he offered her a job at his company. (He’s had to fire a guy who was stealing from the pension fund, creating an opening, and as Gloria puts it: “You know that he’s got this thing going on in his chest, so you never know where you’re going to end up, Claire!”) She’s not inclined to subject herself to his tone deaf putdowns and is trying to think of a way to say no. When her old boss at the roller rink asks her to man the snack bar while he cleans up “some civilian’s yak” in the rink, and when Luke reveals that he’s stressed about his essay on a personal hero because he chose his mom instead of (as Phil is no doubt assuming) his dad (“Mom, you know me and homework—I didn’t give it much thought”), she gets up the strength to tell her dad he treated her poorly. All the while, she’s expertly pouring sodas and heating up nachos and guilting the customers into throwing their change in the tip jar. It’s a marvelous thing to watch, and a great moment for Claire, who doesn’t get many big wins on this show.
And in the background, another half dozen little subplots get their moments, rolling by as the DJ announces limbo games and couples skates. Luke’s nervousness about his essay: “I can’t always be the loveable sidekick on the Manny show. Haven’t you noticed I’m binge eating?” Phil’s attempt to teach self-conscious Gloria to skate with acronyms like KBALCUBO (mnemonic: Koala Bears Always Lose Cherries Under Big Overpasses). Haley instructing Alex how to flirt with the boys at the rink by not rubbing her superior intellect in their faces. Manny writing down the offenses of his family members in his notebook, shaking his head in judgment when Gloria mentioned not owning up to the hair in her dinner so Jay wouldn’t have to pay.
All of them have their moments, especially Phil and Gloria’s skating lessons; the way Phil momentarily freezes up and babbles when Gloria blurts out “I can’t lie to that face. It’s a good thing we’re not married” kicks off a series of great Phil takes, made all the better by being relegated to a minor subplot, where they can surprise and delight by stealing the spotlight. But what makes this episode exceptional is how they fit seamlessly within the major storylines of Cam versus Teddy. Just look at the way the cheery DJ’s announcement of a minor fire sets up a great visual gag, with the family forced to choose between Teddy leading them to the nearest exit and Cam imperiously motioning them toward a slightly more roundabout route to safety. And then the unexpected—but on the other hand, completely in character for this show—encounter between Cam and Jay, where Jay shows a watching Claire a different side of himself by building Cam up, telling him that Teddy can’t find anybody despite being such a great guy, and that he didn’t bring out the best in Mitchell, not like Cam does.
After the episode ended, Noel and I spent a couple of minutes comparing it to the slight awkwardness, the off-model feeling of this week’s How I Met Your Mother episode, “Something Old.” Here, the sentiment emerges from elegantly constructed but seemingly chance encounters and conjunctions of character. And the humor has a similarly serendipitous feel; the gags get bigger laughs the more they pop up out of nowhere. If you’re not paying attention, this could look like an ordinary episode of an ordinary sitcom. A laugh or two, some characters we like, and we move on. But this is craft, folks. It’s not easy to make this happen. And while I think Modern Family has had a solid season, here as we reach the end, it’s important to remember what it’s all built on: episodes like this one, that allow both emotion and comedy to emerge from talented performers and writers and crewpeople, gathered in the same place, at the same time.
- Claire reports how Jay treated her the summer she worked in his company: “‘Princess, coffee pot’s not going to wash itself.’” Phil, stunned: “That’s where you got that?”
- Cam worked his fingers to the bone to get these jumpy Protestants to love him!
- Poor roller rink guy. He says that when you’re doing something you love, you never work a day in your life. Then he confesses cheerily: “I got a girl pregnant; it’s a whole thing.”
- Gloria pulls down Phil’s pants at his direction in order to distract any potential watchers so that she can skate unobserved. Claire, offscreen: “PHIL!” Phil, immediately: “I know!”
- Claire has disappointed Jay on four major occasions in her life: She cut off her hair, went to college out of state, crashed his vintage Jaguar, and … “That’s only three!” Phil responds, horrified at the implication.
- “This is as sad as I’ve ever been in roller skates.”