I’ve argued before that it’s not necessarily a problem if Modern Family indulges in sitcom clichés, because they can be executed in fresh ways. And yeah, the old standards aren’t always bad. “They’re standards for a reason” is the line. But there’s a little B.S. there, too. Sometimes, tired is tired. A couple having an argument while the man doesn’t know what it’s about is tired. A wacky character with a terrible singing voice—except she doesn’t realize it, and she just loves to sing!—is tired. No amount of stylish storytelling is going to save these musty tropes. At least, it doesn’t tonight.
Cam and Mitchell’s storyline, however, doesn’t need saving. It’s the bright spot of the night. All the couples share variations on the same problem: One partner is having a tough time listening to the other. The trouble with Mitch is that he’s not even trying that hard. Oh, his intentions are good, but he’s easily distracted. While Cam pulls him close to share some good news about Lily’s skin condition, Mitch is writing “EGGS” on the shopping list with his free arm (probably the funniest moment of the episode).
And when Cam beams at the good news that none of the “regrets only” invitations to his charity benefit have been returned, Mitch is mortified. The reason nobody has sent regrets is that the invites never made it out of the back seat of his car, under his workout bag. “I feel terrible,” Mitch says in a talking head. “I haven’t been to the gym in six weeks! … And I ruined Cam’s event.”
It’s a fun plotline, one that doesn’t require wacky hijinks or the introduction of a red-headed little person. Not to give Jesse Tyler Ferguson short shrift, but most of the gold here comes from the partnership between Cam and Luke. This is a pairing that needs to happen more often.
Cam hires Luke to staff the event, and the two spend the rest of the episode complementing each other’s idiosyncrasies. Luke loves being the right-hand man who executes the big plays—remember how readily he embraced vigilantism in “Slow Down Your Neighbors”?—so he doesn’t mind Cam’s melodrama. (In fact, he’s encouraged by it.) And Cam loves directing a scene, so he looks beyond the fact that the kid can’t, say, figure out the “redial” button on a phone. Modern Family’s second season has not been as strong as its first, mostly because the show has stretches where it become a bit too content with itself. Yet the brilliance of Cam & Luke Party Planners is a clear sign that there’s promise ahead, because the creators are still seeking out and finding these pleasant surprises in their cast.
One source of worry with Modern Family, however, is Claire. The writers send her to the Shrill Zone yet again, and it’s once too many for me. I’m not buying any of what tonight’s Claire-Phil storyline is selling. I was lucky enough to grow up in a harmonious family, but there were rare occasions my parents yelled at each other, and when your parents do that, it sucks. So when the episode begins with the kids coming down to see the after-effects of a violent, cabinet-breaking kitchen throwdown between Claire and Phil, that’s a pretty unpleasant first image.
In that context, the whole “I’m not going to tell you what I’m mad about because you should know” trope doesn’t come off as hilarious but, rather, cruel. It casts Claire as a vituperative, uncommunicative, love-withholding, mall-orgasm-having hysteric, and that’s not fair to the character. I mean, she throws a conniption fit and refuses to sleep in the same room as her husband—which in marital terms is one step short of the nuclear option—and the whole thing is about wedge salad. Yet the next morning, she makes a point of NOT apologizing for her behavior. There’s not much room for me to find sympathy here.
The show’s creators apparently enjoy seeing Julie Bowen freak out, but they’ve got to give Claire some more arrows in her emotional quiver. It’s bad enough that she often becomes the standard-bearer for “Women! They sure can’t control their emotions!” condescension; it’s worse that she tends to embody an especially selfish variant of that stereotype.
The shame is that if this storyline were told in a less clichéd and pointlessly over-the-top fashion, the honesty of its observations would shine through. The episode is getting at a strange-but-true dynamic of marriage. More than once, my wife has recommended some TV show, movie, Web site, or whatever, yet I’ve only paid attention after a friend says the same thing. When this happens, she laughs and makes fun of me (for that is the reaction of a sane human being), and I admit that I’m a dork. It’s this weird paradox of a long-term relationship, in that the longer you spend with someone, the easier it is to forget that they know you pretty well.
I also like that instead of wrapping up Claire and Phil’s argument with some “I love you for you” pablum, Phil pulls out an old photo album and flips through visual evidence that Claire really has changed him. People in a couple do shape each other. It’s one of the prime benefits of marriage. Again, though, this honest sentiment plays out in a weird way: Phil talks about how Claire has done so much to transform him into her own design, and this arouses her. By the way, we now know that the Dunphy kids live in a household where they hear their parents making passionate love one day, breaking things the next, and then going back to sex. Maybe Haley really should work at that after-school job; she’ll need the money for therapy bills someday.
Speaking of which, there’s not much to the Haley-Alex storyline about Haley’s fraudulent restaurant gig, as it’s just an obvious vehicle to get Claire to a location where she can indulge in a second wedge-salad freakout. And the karaoke thing—watching a character sing wildly off-key is never as funny as a show’s writers think it’s going to be. Of course, maybe that was the message. The show is up against American Idol, after all. Getting in a dig at the competition?
- “I do Jay. Why can’t I do you?”
- “Hi there. Is your father home?” “I think so. Why?”
- “Happy Valenbirthuhhhversary!”
- “You know, when you get a massage, you sound like a Tijuana prostitute.”
- Cam: “What are we going to do?” Luke: “I could start a fire.” Cam: “No! But keep that in your back pocket.”
- “You’re the witch who saved me.”
- Todd’s going to do next week’s episode, and then Donna’s back. I’m looking forward to reading her reviews again. I’ve missed her as much as you all have. Thanks for having me these past few weeks!