Modern Family: “Sleeper”
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Modern Family: “Sleeper”

Not a Woody Allen homage after all

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Modern Family

"Sleeper"

Season 5, Episode 21

Were you aware of Phil Dunphy’s physical attraction to Gloria Delgado-Pritchett? I’m so serious. I mean, like, sexual attraction. Even if you have been watching Modern Family regularly since it premiered, you may not have noticed the subtle sexual dynamic between Phil and his mother-in-law Gloria. But it’s there, and the writers have actually trotted it out frequently over the years, but have scaled it back recently. What’s especially crazy is that Claire will be right there for Phil’s awkward, flustered response to Gloria and she either doesn’t notice, or does notice but doesn’t seem to care.

I don’t mean to condescend, but I can’t imagine how else “Sleeper” makes any sense unless the audience has completely forgotten about one of the character dynamics Modern Family tapped most often in its treasured early years: Phil’s conspicuous crush on Gloria. Claire doesn’t seem bent out of shape about the whole thing. As I recall, she was equally unruffled when Judy Greer tried to sexually assault Phil in the kitchen. There’s really never been anything on Modern Family to buttress the idea that Phil is cowering in fear of Claire’s unreasonable jealousy. If anything, it’s been clear that Claire is neurotic, but when she has perspective, she knows her husband is an odd bird who just so happens to fit her as a husband. Claire is not frequently insecure about her relationship.

In order for the bulk of “Sleeper” to work, the audience has to buy that Phil’s guilt over listening to a Carly Simon single and reminiscing about his first time would be so profound, so intense it would stress him to the point of causing narcolepsy. Is this the same Phil Dunphy who went to great pains to cover up his failure to secure a bookshelf prior to an earthquake? Those were actual stakes. “Sleeper” is about Phil acquiring a neurological disorder because he enjoyed a memory of a woman from his past. Sorry, no. It doesn’t work out of the gate, and given how much of “Sleeper” is occupied by Phil’s bizarre struggle with narcolepsy, it’s not as easy to forgive the subordinate plots, which have flashes of charm but aren’t in support of anything, really.

What makes “Sleeper” especially disappointing is how it diminishes Phil, Modern Family’s most consistently written character, by putting him in an aimless, unfunny plot that even Ty Burrell couldn’t save. Given how much Burrell can do with very little—“Enough said about that!”—it’s kind of a downer to be reminded that even Burrell is limited by the material he’s given.

The script was a rare bum note from a trio of Modern Family vets—Paul Corrigan, Paul Walsh, and Bill Wrubel, the last of whom wrote “The Bicycle Thief,” which remains one of my all-time favorite episodes. Not too much of “Sleeper” works, and what does work seems to do so in spite of itself.

The stuff going on around Phil is Modern Family’s usual grab-bag of subordinate plots, with Mitchell freaking out because people think he can play piano, Jay taking an interest in dog shows, and Haley and Luke conspiring to wash a shirt on someone else’s dime. Meanwhile, Alex lobbies for a more interesting disease to research for school, Gloria tries to darken her baby, and Cam tries to prove to Claire he’s jes’ folk, even as he refuses to put Lily in the Dunphy girls’ hand-me-downs.

There are some cute jokes spread sparingly through “Sleeper,” particularly in Haley and Luke’s conspiracy to bogart some schmuck’s triple loader. I can’t remember how long its been since an episode paired Haley and Luke without any of the other kids, and it totally worked, perhaps because it felt novel. The rest of “Sleeper,” geez, I don’t really know. I wasn’t a fan of “Australia,” but it was Modern Family as a commercial, which wasn’t good but it felt different enough from a regular episode to make it feel like its own weird thing. These are the familiar characters in the familiar settings, and it’s just not that great.

Comedy is a moving target, but I want to love Modern Family again, and I wish it could just decide if it wants to be good or bad.

Stray observations:

  • Why would Jay explain his interest in dog shows to Mitchell that way? Why would that happen?
  • I did like Lily’s insistence on retelling the story of how Cam left her in the car during an errand.
  • Luke and Haley’s conversation about whether or not he could “get” her sounded like the beginning of some niche fan-fiction.
  • Sanjay Patel’s got Crohn’s disease. Tough break, kid.
  • Alex: “My teacher gave me mononucleosis.” 

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