Modern Family: "Strangers on a Treadmill"
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Modern Family: "Strangers on a Treadmill"

I’m a sucker for classic toastmaster comedy.  There’s something so heartwarming about the fact that the hoariest jokes in the world become hilarious when they are told to -- and about -- a group of people who know each other and are ready to have a great time.  That fact is exploited by the strongest storyline in tonight’s episode to provide one of the best moments this show has produced: a victory for hapless Phil, against the odds.

The criss-cross premise is lifted (with attribution) from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.  Mitchell and Claire commiserate while on treadmills at the gym about the self-delusions that plague their spouses.  Cam and Phil both need to be disabused of their respective illusions, but it would be too painful coming from their life partners.  So they agree to do each other’s murder.

Off goes Claire to tell Cam that he shouldn’t wear the bike shorts that are so revealing their frontal region must be pixelated on network television.  The reason Mitchell couldn’t do it is that Cam is a bit sensitve about his appearance, as proven by the second funniest sequence in tonight’s episode, a brief montage of Cam taking offense at Mitchell agreeing with his idea to take a spin class (“Oh, I get it.  Message received”) and silently dumping out a bowl of fruit when Mitchell looks at him wrong.  

But when it comes time for Mitchell to pull the trigger, he can’t do it.  Claire wants him to tell Phil to lay off the bad jokes when he hosts a realtors’ banquet that night, but after remaining stonefaced at Phil’s opening salvo (“I’m not saying Realtor Skip Wooznum is old, but the first property he ever sold was a cave”), he loses his nerve. Faced with Phil’s fragile self-image, he cracks and reassures Phil that he’s hilarious and is sure to knock ‘em dead at the microphone.

Two other storylines jostle for airtime in this episode.  At the Pritchett household, Gloria challenges Jay to connect with his Latin employees by going to a quincenera (rather than making his usual gesture, “throw them an Omaha steak and run to the golf course”).  He tries to prove to her how well he knows the partygoers, unaware that they’ve wandered into the engagement celebration rather than the quincenera next door, leading to the predictable moment when he explodes in protest as the featured dance becomes more racy than he expects from father and daughter.  Terrific Manny moments aside, this was too broad to make much impact.  Much better is Alex’s quest to become a popular girl, coached by Haley to play hard to get with entry point Mackenzie.  So quickly does she learn her lesson to ignore the texts and make Mackenzie call her back that she gets too cocky while responding to a party invitation.  Maybe she’ll make it -- she’s pretty busy.  (Haley is in tears at the maturation of her protege.)  She has a lot of stuff to do.  “You know, stuff.  Homework.”  (No!)  “Well, no -- it’s not really work if you love it.”  (Haley: “Throw down the phone and kick it over to me!”)  The mutual screams of despair after this disastrous conversation were wonderful to behold.

The Mitchell half of the criss-cross turns out about like you might expect: Cam is hurt (“did he just run into the bedroom and cry?” Claire asks on the phone, for good reason); he takes up Mitchell’s offer to reveal a compensating annoyance (“I hate your beard,” he responds immediately; “Wow, you had that bullet in the chamber,” Mitchell muses); then he stops Mitchell before the latter can shave (but not before he “took off a notch”) to apologize for wanting to change him.

It’s the Phil half that elevates “Strangers on a Treadmill” above the pack.  Desperate to stop Phil from embarrassing himself, Claire swipes his index cards and send him to the podium without any of his prepared material.  In his own words, however, “Phil Dunphy is no straight guy,” and when his first little witticism (thanking the colon polyps of the usual MC for making it possible for him to be there) hits pay dirt, he’s off and running.  “So many giants of residential real estate here tonight -- and of course, J.J. McCoven,” he riffs; cut to the diminuative J.J. yucking it up in the audience with a “you got me” gesture.  “I’m not saying J.J. is small, but in the real estate section he was described as ‘charming,’” Phil continues, before congratulating realtor Mark Simon for moving into a newer model -- “how are you, Francine?”  Hilarity ensues, both in the banquet hall and in audience living rooms.  It’s not only a classic reversal of expectations; it’s also a reminder that in comedy, context is everything.  A groaner on the page can kill if the right relationship exists between comedian and audience.

Stray observations:

  • The usual host for the SCARB (Southern California Annual Realtors Banquet) is Gil Thorp.  Has he given up coaching?  But it’s almost time for the playdowns!
  • Jay is trying to clean up his DVR, but Gloria won’t let him delete the five-month-old soccer match (or tell her who won).  “What about this two-hour Antiques Roadshow?” he asks.  Manny, walking through the room: “I’ll watch it today.”
  • I did like Jay’s strategy to show he knows people at the party: calling out “Carlos!” to a gaggle of men and waving at the one who responds.  “I’m lucky only one guy turned around,” he confesses to the camera.
  • Best supporting player tonight: Luke, congratulating first his dad, then his mom for their uproarious comedy chops.  After Claire imitates the crazy lady at the grocery store, he enthuses, “It’s like she’s right here!”
  • “Talk about your balloon payments!”

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