When there’s tension within a family, people often magnify the drama—and their own role in it—imagining themselves at the center of a diabolical palace intrigue. Over the years, there are plenty of grievances, slights, and arguments to go around. It’s not the most noble instinct, but sooner or later, everybody wants to be the put-upon little princess.
The Pritchett-Dunphy clan is full of aspiring princesses in “Princess Party.” The question of this episode is, who actually deserves the title? Nana Dede’s behavior is so erratic that the source of her derangement is hard to pin down. When she brings Claire’s high-school flame Robbie Sullivan (Matt Dillon) to the house, it initially seems like a tactic designed to infuriate Claire. After all, Claire has prepared herself—and the entire household—for her role of Tormented Daughter.
Yes, at the dinner table, Dede does throw some verbal elbows—“Robbie could charm your socks off, but I doubt he stopped there”—and Claire makes a proud show of her restraint (while Haley delights in the spectacle). But Claire’s narrative of persecution unravels. First, Phil argues that Dede’s invitation to Robbie was directed at him because she’s disappointed in Phil as a son-in-law. It wouldn’t be an uncommon sentiment among the parents of Claire Dunphy née Pritchett. Still, she waves it off—this is her moment of suffering.
When they open the door and find Dede making out with Robbie, though, all bets are off. It’s not clear anymore who this is about. That means martyrdom is up for grabs. Everyone in the Pritchett clan jockeys for their spot in the pretty-princess spotlight. Claire still insists that the entire affair is a campaign of mother-daughter harassment. Mitchell says that Dede’s acting out because he and Cam wouldn’t let her stay at their house. And Jay, the man with the buxom young spouse, thinks his ex is playing relationship poker, seeing his nubile Colombian and raising him one limo driver with rock-hard abs.
There are two obvious directions to go with this setup. Option A is to make Dede’s behavior about all of these things. Option B is to make it about none of them. “Princess Party” is more clever than either of these. In a private moment with Jay, Dede makes a heartfelt speech: She’s the one who split up the family because she was looking for something different, so whenever she visits, she feels pressure to show everyone that she found it. Because otherwise, what was the point of all that heartache? It’s a head-fake toward Option B.
Jay lets her off the hook. “We were stalled,” he says, and he knew that the marriage wasn’t working; he just didn’t have the courage to end it. Except none of this reassurance matters, because Jay was right in the first place: Dede just hates Jay’s new wife. She launches herself at Gloria—who’s semi-stoned on anti-anxiety meds—and the rest of the party moves in to break up the scrum, especially Phil: “I’ve got Gloria! I’ve got Gloria!” Thus Modern Family applies the Occam’s Razor of family conflict: The simplest reason for someone to act like a jerk is probably the correct one. And Jay gets to be princess.
Mitchell and Cam’s side plot features much arguing about Fizbo. There isn’t an actual appearance by the clown himself (only a hastily-crafted British counterpart), which is a relief. Modern Family spent last week’s episode somewhat lamely trying to recapture the glory of a better episode from a year ago. When tonight’s half-hour began with talk of Fizbo, it came off as an alarming signal that the show was already out of ideas.
False alarm. Mitchell and Cam’s argument sort of echoes the main thread: Cam wants to be the princess of the party, but Mitchell insists that it’s Lily’s moment. Mitchell is wrong. Mute, affectless zombie-infant Lily is still too young to give a crap about a party thrown in her honor. In any sane frame of reference, a baby’s birthday party is for the grownups. That truth ultimately strikes Mitchell when the mood in his backyard turns sour. Forget Lily; he has to defuse the post-catfight tension. So he enlists Fizbo. Two birds: The party will get some new energy, and Cam is happy.
The Jay-Gloria debate over whether they should attend each other’s family events exists to kill time. She says she won’t go to Pritchett family gatherings, and then she says she will. Not the most gripping stuff. Even the writers don’t seem to care. “Just get on with the lady wrestling already” is the prevailing sentiment.
- “I guess you don’t respect party themes.” “You did NOT just say that.”
- “Maybe a fuzzy navel wine cooler will loosen you up. Sure useta!”
- “The truth is, Luke, I am rich, but not with money. I got my abs. I got my hair.”
- Manny: “Baby Bear’s a girl? We have to do it over! I would have played it totally different.” Jay: “You nailed it.”
- “All those joke emails she forwarded to me months after I’d seen them? Well, no more polite LOLs for YOU, Dede.”
- “What the hell is she thinking? He’s half her age. … Don’t start.”
- “Luke, I’ll need you to be extra-cute.” “No problem. I’ve got some stuff prepared: ‘Hey, Mom, I’m firsty!’” Ninety seconds into the show. Earliest firsties ever?