Modern Family: “Planes, Trains And Cars”
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Modern Family: “Planes, Trains And Cars”

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Modern Family

“Planes, Trains And Cars”

Season 3, Episode 20

Since the most famous thing about Modern Family these days is the number of vehicular accidents that it portrays, let’s get this out of the way immediately: Neither planes, trains, nor cars collide in “Planes, Trains, and Cars.” There is a passing reference to a subway crash, and Gloria refuses to ride in a single-engine plane or a hobbyist’s restored military helicopter because she is afraid of them crashing (not into each other), and a car is driven on the rather dangerous Pacific Coast Highway without incident. So come to think of it, even without the actual mayhem, a strange obsession with perilous modes of transport does manifest. Oh wait—Jay’s giant SUV hits a pothole and breaks a strut! It’s not anything that requires a police report, but let’s say it counts for the streak.

Apart from conveyances, I don’t discern much of a theme connecting the three stories tonight. Phil is goaded by his neighbor Andre (first seen in “Treehouse,” one of the season’s best episodes; hey Kevin Hart!) into buying a vintage sports car rather than leasing the same Cadillac sedan every 40 months. Phil’s sure Claire will be furious, but she doesn’t react at all, while he discovers that he can’t fit his real-estate signs in the front-trunk and doesn’t have passenger room for clients. So he borrows Claire’s minivan, which entails picking up the kids, during which he rather enjoys eavesdropping on their backseat conversations to learn that Luke has an admirer named Olivia who stares at him constantly (“It’s like she’s in love with soccer!” Luke says with charming obliviousness) and that Haley has broken up with her current beau. Meanwhile, Claire ditches her list of errands in order to be wild and crazy with the sports car, driving up the coast and doing cartwheels on the beach and losing the keys and having to call Phil to come get her.

Lesson? Spontaneity sucks, just like you always suspected, Claire. Responsibility brings reward, just like you’re always telling Phil, Claire. Plan a once-a-month outing to the beach in order to transform spontaneity into responsibility. Win-win!

In tonight’s horrifyingly realistic storyline, Mitch and Cam take Lily on an outing to Chinatown (Mitch: “So much diversity! Keep your wallet in your front pocket"). But when Cam tosses Lily’s stuffed bunny to Mitch, it flies into the departing subway train. As a parent who has witnessed more than one irreplaceable security object go missing, I was prepared for nuclear meltdown, but the writers couldn’t get preternaturally calm Lily to do much more than insist “Where’s bunny?” and “I want bunny” in a slightly louder tone than normal. Still, Mitch and Cam stay up all night consoling her, leading to the episode’s funniest moment, with Cam falling asleep during the confessional with his eyes open, then starting the story over again to the camera when Mitch wakes him up. They plaster the subway system with missing-bunny flyers until they see a homeless man clutching bunny, and are prepared to wrest the toy from him until he coughs on it.

Lesson? “Surface-clean only” will never get rid of the plagues homeless people all carry.

I was most confused by the out-of-nowhere Jay and Gloria story, in which Jay wants to impress all his old buddies at a Pebble Beach reunion, but can’t reach his destination when Gloria refuses the plane ride. Manny pipes up in the background from time to time about the massage he’s looking forward to, and a string of bit players appear to deliver bad news about the vehicles (my favorite is the pilot who looks at the group and says, “Whoa, nobody said anything about three people. I’ll just need some weight information”), but the conflict we’re apparently supposed to care about is why Jay is so anxious to show off for his high school football teammates. Turns out he was a benchwarmer who no one ever thought would make good, and he wants to show off Gloria to rub it in their faces, a plan that convinces Gloria to accept a ride from the mechanic with the homebrew helicopter.

Lesson? Um, that feelings of inferiority from your teenage years can’t be erased by any amount of love and family and success in the future?  I don’t know, folks. The message I’m getting is these half-baked ideas are the best the show has for May sweeps, and that’s scarier than a convertible on a twisty road carved out of a coastal bluff any day.

Stray observations:

  • Happily, Kevin Hart still manages to bring the laughs even in a couple of short scenes. Reminding Phil that nobody on their deathbeds wishes they’d driven a more practical car, he emphasizes: “I see a lot of people on their deathbeds, Phil—a lot.” (“I thought you operated on knees and elbows,” Phil responds.) Later when Claire first sees the sports car, Phil tries to head her off at the pass with: “Looks impractical, but Andre’s seen a lot of people die.”
  • Thanks to a recent episode of Hotel Impossible, I know that Manny speaks the truth when he observes that “A lot of amenities disappear when an H becomes an M.”
  • Mitch was traumatized when his father made no effort to retrieve a Luke Skywalker figure that he accidentally left behind on a plane. (“Shorty robe or dress blacks?” Cam inquires; “Shorty robe,” confirms Mitch.)
  • Come to think of it, the real lesson of “Planes, Trains, and Cars” is probably Jay’s motto: “If you were a straight white guy who played football, you really couldn’t have a bad day.”