Modern Family: “Phil On Wire”
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Modern Family: “Phil On Wire”

B-

Modern Family

“Phil On Wire”

Season 3, Episode 3

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Early episodes of Modern Family’s third season were written and produced long before its onslaught of Emmys a few weeks ago. But there has been a confidence pervading the proceedings with the program, almost as if it knew it would receive such accolades, that has existed since its pilot. The show knows what it does well, knows what people like about it, and has delivered that product on a consistent basis. Is such confidence earned? In some respects, absolutely. When the show works, it works on a level that seems almost effortless. But when it doesn’t work, there’s little sense that the show itself realizes things aren’t working in peak form. Bad episodes of Modern Family aren’t the straight-up disasters that, say, this week’s episode of 2 Broke Girls was. However, while the 2011 Emmys should represent everything that works about this show, it also helped highlight the show’s fundamental problem.

Now, this is a first world problem, to be sure. It’s a problem most television programs, comedic or dramatic, would kill to have. That problem? An overflow of quality performers. That shouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Saying the show has too much talent makes it sound like I’m kissing the show’s butt before I get to actually discussing tonight’s episode. But to draw a metaphor from the world of sports, having a “Dream Team” isn’t always the best way of producing guaranteed successful results. The Miami Heat and the Philadelphia Eagles have learned that stockpiling talent isn’t a guarantee for championships, after all. And while Modern Family has a strong ensemble, episodes of the program rise and fall on the prudent and systematic deployment of the cast.

Look at the way in which the six adult actors submitted themselves for the Emmys. On one level, it’s a sign of solidarity for none of them to submit for Lead Actor or Lead Actress. However, that move also signals the worst aspect of the show: the seeming need to give all three families within its fictional universe equal screentime in every episode. (The child actors are also uniformly excellent, but there seems to be less worry about getting them equal face time.) One could theorize that all six adults are behind-the-scenes terrors that fight tooth and nail to appear onscreen every week. One would be wrong, but one could do it all the same. More likely? A combination of on-screen talent, writers’ room preferences, and fan predilections seeks to provide four-quadrant entertainment that sometimes falls short of pleasing anymore. Can there be too much of a good thing? When it comes to Modern Family, absolutely.

Episodes like “Manny Get Your Gun” and last week’s “When Good Kids Go Bad” take seemingly disparate storylines and fuse them successfully into one fully realized story. But more often than not, each family gets stranded in its own world. It’s not about certain characters being inherently “better” than one another. That boils down to personal taste. But when an episode of Modern Family features three discrete stories featuring each branch of the family in a silo from one another, then the product can get diluted. Now, the idea of a Cam-less Modern Family episode simply doesn’t compute for those involved with the show. Nor does it probably occur to most people watching at home. This isn’t a slam on Cam (a Cam slam?); insert Phil or Gloria or anyone else into this equation. Characters on Modern Family work best when they serve a purpose to the overall narrative, rather than appearing to fulfill a contractual obligation.

“Phil on Wire” is a “contractual obligation” episode, in which the three families barely intersect and all pretty much do their own thing. (There’s an even further subdivision where Phil/Luke have their tightrope story, while Claire tries to give motherly advice to Alex and Haley.) If you wanted to grasp at straws, you could say that each storyline represented the ways in which certain people let each other down from time to time… but that’s really every sitcom storyline, right? Claire sums it up best near the end of the episode: “All in all, not a great day for the Dunphys.” It wasn’t a bad day, either. But none of the individual strands got enough time to really develop past the surface level, and with little to connect any of them together, “Phil on Wire” didn’t really represent a tightrope walk so much as a leisurely stroll across the widest path possible. It was a perfectly pleasant stroll, but not the show at its best.

When Modern Family works, it doesn’t need to explicitly lay out the connective tissue. But when you hear a voiceover in the 25th minute, it usually means the show has to explain what anything that preceded it had to do with each other in the editing room. Claire insists that Phil “walked the walk” in terms of his parenting skills, but really, he just wanted a more interesting way to get from one side of the lawn to the other. One could make the case that such ironic juxtaposition was the point. But that would also imply that anything Phil did bore any relation to what Claire did this week. As such, the combination of Claire’s perspective with Phil’s emphasizes just how discrete those two storylines were.

Now, an entire episode of Phil trying to tightrope, with various players in the Modern Family world reacting to that endeavor in ways that inspired either admiration or derision? That’s an episode I’d watch. That may not necessitate every character being equally involved or even marginally involved. Writing for multiple characters is great and can provide a great narrative tapestry. But that only works when their presence is related to the story at hand. No one’s suggesting that Mitchell turn into the Modern Family equivalent of McNulty from the fourth season of The Wire here. But a revolving focus on particular members of the family would let the six adult actors shine far more than the evenly distributed storylines currently on display. That all six consider themselves supporting come Emmys time is great. But they need to periodically take the lead on the show as well. Otherwise, to poach a metaphor from the Jay/Gloria storyline, the humor is all bark and no bite.

To say I’d watch an entire episode of Phil navigating a tightrope is to say I’d also watch an entire episode of Haley/Alex navigating high school, or Cam/Mitchell navigating a juice fast, or Jay/Gloria navigating around their dog Stella. None of these stories are unworthy of exploration in and of themselves. (I could probably do without an episode of Claire making an arch-enemy out of the school’s parking officer, however.) But they felt rudderless when placed in juxtaposition with one another, fighting for attention and airtime. The natural arcs of the stories got rushed, leaving us to see periodic highlights, rather than an ebb and flow. Seeing Cam and Mitchell go through the various stages of dieting grief over the course of an episode would have made the payoff at the boss’ seaside mansion pop more than it did. Instead, the show make the mistake of telling, not showing, us this progression. The same goes for each aspect of tonight’s show: at roughly four-to-five minutes per story, how much could it possibly achieve?

Then again, perhaps most Modern Family fans don’t want to gorge on one particular plot but rather savor a buffet of Dunphy family goodness. (The Mitchell/Cam storyline made me hungry. As you can probably tell.) The “more is more” approach has worked quite well for the show over these past few years, and will undoubtedly serve it well in the future. Episodes such as this are hardly bad television by any stretch. But because Modern Family has reached such transcendent heights, both comically and emotionally, seeing it not try for that level on a weekly basis can be frustrating. Television shows, just like families, evolve over time. Modern Family needs to think about its own kind of balancing act going forth to ensure its own longevity.

Stray observations:

  • I forgot Justin Kirk has appeared on this show in the past upon his initial appearance tonight, and having just watched this past Monday’s season finale of Weeds, I wondered for a moment what angle Andy Botwin was playing with the Snorkels the sea lion.
  • Physical comedy can go a long way in Modern Family. But a lot of tonight’s felt labored, especially Phil wrecking the house with his balancing pole.
  • Fun callback to the show’s past: Cam’s “I’ve got Mitchell!” sounded a lot like Phil’s old cries of “I’ve got Gloria!”
  • An NBC executive probably watched tonight’s episode and thought Law & Order: Special Parking Unit would make an excellent midseason replacement in The Playboy Club’s current timeslot.
  • “Answer the question, Jay.”
  • “How awesome are people?” “So awesome!”
  • “I connected the dots. See ya!”
  • “Well hang in there. A couple more years, you’ll have it all to yourself again.”
  • “I didn’t say that. You barely said that.”
  • “With these steps, I break the surly bond of… chicken in a basket!”
  • “The other day, Uncle Mitchell brought over a bag of junk food so he and Cam could do a Jew fast.”
  • “Is this a people cookie?”
  • “Everything I touch turns to detention.”
  • Donna will be back next week to continue coverage of the show. Fear not.

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