Certain holidays evoke certain emotions, and for every high that arises there’s an equal and opposite low that balances out the scales. Around Valentine’s Day, those in the throes of love get to overtly express that passion, while those single mope around and try to avoid flowers and candy. Thanksgiving can be a wonderful time to reunite with family, unless said family is either too far away or too drama-filled to make it worth your while. “New Year’s Eve”, which gives tonight’s Modern Family episode its title, promises both the chance for a fresh start as well as a potentially stark reminder that life only moves forward in time.
Now, far be it for the show to get truly existential as the clock approaches midnight. But in all four storylines tonight (five, if you want to count Manny’s wooing of Luke’s girlfriend’s cousin as separate), we get to see how each member of the Pritchett’s extended clan viewed the start of 2013 through unique prisms. Things get started when Jay tries to relive a fond memory from his past by taking Gloria, his two children, and their significant others to a hotel in Palm Springs. While Gloria, Claire and Cam are worried about their futures, Jay is longing to live in the past, at least for one night. With Haley (OK, Alex) watching Luke, Manny, and Lily, Jay hopes to give the other five a taste of the happiness he once experienced there.
Unfortunately, time hasn’t been kind to the hotel, which seemingly hasn’t been cleaned since last Jay stayed there. The fact that the hotel reception remembers Jay speaks volumes about the lack of business over the years, and everyone’s general distaste at the hotel’s disrepair indicates that he doesn’t have much in the way of a cleaning staff. Jay recognizes that the reality doesn’t match up to his vision, but is determined to have a good time anyways, through nostalgia combined with sheer force of will. But independent of each other, Gloria and the other two couples conspire to fake illness in order to extricate themselves from Jay’s plans.
In her last review of the show, Donna pointed out how families work as a central conceit for most sitcoms because it’s often impossible to escape the bonds of blood. But the three adult couples tonight clearly needed space away from one another, despite Jay’s best intentions to have them celebrity New Year’s Eve together. Their constant state of being around one another had turned their conversations into repetitious exercises. Phil and Claire were sick of hearing about Lily’s “miraculous” application of the Heimlich maneuver on a fellow classmate, and Cam and Mitchell would have been fine to never hear Luke’s comeback to his pediatrician again. Jay was too busy living in his past to experience everyone else’s present, but always being in each other’s spheres meant the others were temporarily prevented from exploring their own passions.
On the other hand, that also meant they weren’t able to articulate their own insecurities, either. This becomes apparent when everyone splits off for the night when Jay takes Gloria back to their room so she can rest. Claire, pent up after a month without sex with Phil (she remembered the precise last time due to her Black Friday-induced “excitement”), takes the advice of the hotel’s busboy and looks for a hot spring adjacent to a nearby golf course. It’s not just because Claire is horny. That’s partly to blame, but not the primary reason for her actions. Rather, she’s anxious to disprove the notion that she and Phil are well on their way towards separate beds and an ultimately platonic relationship. When she finally explains this to her husband, Phil is calm, rational, and talks her down almost instantly. Modern Family doesn’t always know how to properly calibrate Phil’s worldview, but “New Year’s Eve” really shone when Phil recognized he had to step up and steel Claire’s nerves. Ty Burrell nicely understated Phil’s assurances, and it was once again easy to see why Claire would put up with someone with his eccentricities.
While they sought solace in each other, Mitchell sought solace in a place he had long been unable to reach: 12:01 am. Haunted by their previous year’s plans (which involved falling asleep on the couch well before 10 pm), Mitchell dragged Cam from Palm Springs bar after Palm Springs bar in the hopes of recapturing some of his youth. The results are initially disappointing, with the pair feeling old and ugly surrounded by younger men whipping around insanely sweaty t-shirts. We don’t even see the second bar they enter, its contents too horrific to apparently even mention. They ultimately end up in a gay bar made up entirely of men nearly twice their age. Rather than feeling defeated, Mitchell enjoys the comparative feelings of youth that the place evokes. Much as Phil and Claire come to an understanding of their own strengths and weakness, so too does this couple. In both cases, being comfortable with being comfortable is a victory unto itself.
Two people very uncomfortable in this episode? Haley and Alex, thrust into the position of temporary parental figures when Luke invites his girlfriend over and promptly takes her to his room. Haley and Alex fighting? Funny. Haley and Alex finding themselves temporarily aligned? Generally funnier, especially as Haley starts to take on more and more of Claire’s speech patterns, mannerisms, and intrusion techniques throughout the night. Nothing about Haley’s arc in this episode is remotely surprising. One can see the entire thing unfolding before it happens. But the execution is so solid, both in terms of writing and performance, that it’s a delight all the same. Sarah Hyland is the show’s not-so-stealth MVP, and while it’s unfortunate that Haley was kicked out of school, it’s also better by and large to have her in the house and not interacting with others through Skype.
Meanwhile, now alone with his thoughts of better days gone by, Jay gets invited to a poker game by the hotel receptionist. There, he meets none other than Billy Dee Williams. In some ways, this was just stunt casting. On the other hand, it does allow Jay’s wife to greet him by saying, “Hi, I’m Gloria Dee Wife!”, which pretty much justifies Lando Calrissian’s presence on the show in and of itself. On a meta level, this is Modern Family getting a well-known actor to appear on its show to play poker and eat grapes on a gondola. On a show level, however, Williams’ appearance gets to the heart of tonight’s four disparate stories: Sometimes, when we let life happen to us, odd things can unfurl. We can rediscover our youth. We can discover that our overbearing parents actually have our best interests at heart. We can meet someone we’ve only seen onscreen. Or we can meet an entire nudist society inside a hot spring. If we get out of our own way, sometimes something remarkable can happen. If nothing else, whatever unfolds might make for a great story after the fact.
In any case, the key to tonight’s episode is watching the interactions between the six adults after the ball drops. All three couples finally have new stories to tell, and all are newly engaged with what the others have experienced. Life is all about sharing moments with those you love. That sharing can involve being in the moment together. But quite often, it’s about recounting it after the fact. Balancing the two is key, and sometimes it takes a holiday to reinforce that fact. “New Year’s Eve” wasn’t the funniest episode this season by a long stretch, but it was one of its most heartfelt. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.
- “Who’s watching me?” “Haley.” “I’m serious!” Even Lily knows who’s in charge, babysitting-wise.
- What’s scarier: what Cam and Mitchell saw in Club Number Two, or what Phil saw in the hotel bathroom?
- “Maybe this is part of an elaborate plan to kill us!” That feels like the plot of the 2007 horror film Vacancy.
- “Tastes like Russia!” I think I read that in the New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant.
- Eventually, Haley will learn how old Luke is. But it won’t be this week. Still, we get this insight: ““I think I owe Mom a huge apology!” So there’s hope yet for more breakthroughs down the line.
- Seeing Phil act mature was fantastic. Seeing Billy Dee Williams mistake him on sight for Mitchell was even better.
- Hopefully, by now you’ve noticed I’m not Donna. She’ll be back soon enough, once her local ABC affiliates stops showing SEC basketball in lieu of its primetime lineup. Look for a rotating list of TV Club writers to help step in an attempt to fill her shoes.