Modern Family has been around for four years now, and in that time, its three interlocking family units have pretty much remained stable. The biggest change that the producers have incorporated into the show was probably Hayley graduating high school and going off to college, a decision that Sarah Hyland sort of made for them just by getting older; the show’s way of dealing with that shift in the Dunphy family dynamic was to have her bomb out of school almost immediately and come crawling back to her family’s spiky embrace. The show itself trades in the commonplace that the modern definition of “family” is in flux, but these families haven’t had to weather any major changes until tonight, when—tada!—Gloria has her baby.
It seems kind of appropriate that the big joke around the birth is that Gloria is fighting her own body to try to keep it from happening, at least not just yet: She goes into labor on Manny’s birthday, and wants to spare him from having to share that special date with a younger sibling. She’s already helped spoil his birthday by arranging a surprise party for him, not knowing that he’ll be coming home with a pretty girl who bestows his first kiss on him, just before flipping on a light switch and seeing the small army of relatives standing there staring at them, wondering if they’re still supposed to yell, “Surprise!” Manny may not have much game, but he’s always been, as he said in last week’s episode, a gracious host, and he alone is keeping the metrosexual spirit alive on network TV. It’s nice to finally see it paying off for him, even as a pretext for a little cringe comedy.
There are other aspects of this episode that may make you cringe without fully convincing you that this is the reaction that was intended. In the first glimpse of Mitchell and Cameron, Mitchell and Lily are having a pretend wedding—a cute-awkward situation that becomes funny-awkward when Cam becomes jealous and frets over why Lily didn’t propose to him. (“Please, don’t let me marrying my daughter turn into something ugly.”) Having persuaded Lily to let him lead her down the aisle, Cam over-decorates wildly for the play wedding and even buys Lily a working toy car that she can speed off in, with cans tied to the bumper—there’s some funny stuff in there. But the real running gag is that Cam keeps helplessly injuring the kid; he bops her by accident, stands helplessly by as she has a collision in her toy car, and even dumps her in a swimming pool. I’m not Team Herod or anything, but I don’t have any deeply held philosophical objection to violent physical comedy directed at children. But if you’re going to repeatedly show a five-year-old being battered on the theory that it’ll be funny, you ought to be careful to get the timing better than it is here.
The real cringe comedy comes in the scenes with Hayley and her new boyfriend, who turns out to be a fortyish ponytailed jeans salesman who says things like “I’m trying to get into girls’ jeans.” Modern Family’s eagerness to bring in big-name guest stars in flashy roles has sometimes threatened to turn it into the Miami Vice of sitcoms, but Billy Dee Williams, of all people, was the comic highlight of last week’s New Year’s episode, and here, Jason Mantzoukas smoothly carries over his cheerfully-inappropriate perv act from The League. It takes a while for even this asshole to wear down Phil’s determination to remain good-humored in the face of any horror, but when it happens, the results are impressive: “I’m gonna fight him, “Phil seethes. “I’m gonna fight him up real nice.” In the end, it turns out that Hayley is only dating Mantzoukas to get a rise out of her parents, and having succeeded, she gives her father a big hug, blissed out over his stated desire to kick her boyfriend’s ass through his hat. As in the episode last October about checking Hayley into her dorm, the payoff shows that Modern Family can still be touching even when dealing with its most cartoonish characters.
But the rush to the maternity ward at the climax dictate that this is Gloria and Jay’s episode, and I don’t know what’s supposed to be going on with these two. For some reason, they celebrate Manny’s birthday by going on a bit of a crime spree, stealing a cake from a woman on the street rather than suffer the indignity of waiting for their number to be called at the bakery, then plowing through a security barrier rather than backtrack and take the designated exit path. (Jay does ask the guy at the bakery if he can’t just let them pick up the cake that’s sitting there waiting for them in plain view. “If I do that for you,” the guy says, “I’d have to do it for everybody.” “Not if you just do it for me,” says Jay. I will never understand how logic like that could fail to work on anyone.) Why are they in such a hurry? Maybe it’s just that Modern Family is in a hurry to get the baby into play and see if this most well-worn of devices for goosing up a long-running show is going to fly. With any luck, the show is introducing the baby because the writers have some stunning ideas about the comic possibilities of a May-December marriage with a new child in the mix. But it might just be that kids are cute, the kids who are already on this show aren’t getting any younger, and Modern Family has no intention of not staying on the air another 10 years if it can help it.
- As you may remember from this space last week, Donna had to miss the birth for reasons having to do with basketball coverage in her area. But I'm sure that when she returns, the baby will love her all the more, now that it's met the rest of the family.