I’m completely on board with two of the four (well, three-and-a-half) premises for tonight’s episode. Generalized to their sitcom archetypes, they may not sound so exciting—Parents Switch Roles, Kid Wants To Quit—but Modern Family has enough of a tilt shift from the standard family setup to put a fresh spin on them. When Cam and Mitchell switch roles, for example, with Cam going back to work and Mitchell left in charge of shepherding Lily before and after school, the jokes are be mostly standard-issue Mr. Mom stuff. But Cam’s flamboyant idealism about teaching music to bored middle schoolers and Mitchell’s reliance on his sister to do both domestic and electrical housework for him keep the plotline anchored to particular traits of these characters. Similarly, “The Butler’s Escape” gets its best laughs from the twist that Luke doesn’t want to quit an instrument or a sports team—he wants to quit magic lessons, thus potentially causing the nerdy, theatrical dreams of his dad to disappear in a poof of smoke.
Not coincidentally, that poof of smoke is one gag that really kills in this episode. When his parents deliver mixed messages about whether magic is optional, Luke yells “Ugh, I hate it here!” and flings a smoke bomb to the ground, covering his escape. Phil wants to make sure that Luke isn’t quitting for the wrong reasons, so he trusses him up in an elaborate suit of chains and padlocks for The Butler’s Escape, which, as everybody knows, is based on the escape of somebody’s manservant from the Tower of London or something. Phil really rushes through the story in the confessional, so certain is he that the feat’s origin is common knowledge, turning to a mute and confused Claire for the punchline: “Giving rise to the popular expression…” before supplying it himself: “Percy jumped the Gert.”
The laughs here come from Phil’s gleeful magic-geekery and Luke’s sullen savant-ism in turn. Contrast Luke’s sudden escape from the suit without any of the triumphant flourishes showmanship demands with Phil’s futile attempts to bring down the house by straining to break the bonds as he utters certain key words in ordinary conversation (he was teased by classmates when word of his magic hobby got out after “my folks had to sign a RELEASE!”, but “the minute I stopped caring what other people thought and did what I wanted to do was the minute I finally felt FREE!”).
Even though the laughs aren’t as plentiful in Mitch and Cam’s storyline, I felt so sympathetic to both their plights that I stayed with them despite the broader stereotypes. Cam’s plan to win over this students via a barrage of music puns (starting with “Here comes treble!”) and the “funky” rhythm setting on his electronic keyboard is so dreadfully square that you can practically see his big gay heart breaking as the kids stare in horrified disbelief. And as the non-designated grocery shopper in our family, I identify fully with Mitch trying to find the right granola and having Lily disappear on him. “Look in the dairy case,” a resigned and disappointed Cam instructs him on the phone. “Doors don’t pull, they slide.” The most clichéd element of this role-reversal plot is that both members of the couple decide to pretend that everything went just perfectly during their day in the other one’s shoes. But even that is nicely subverted by the presence of Claire in the background with her tool chest and roasting pan, failing to get any credit for the perfect house and family Cam came home to (“Mitchell was late picking up Lily! She was in with the custodians!” Claire yells in a futile attempt to rat her brother out).
There are two lesser storylines in “The Butler’s Escape”; one is just negligible, and the other is actively irritating. In a desultory attempt to give Claire something to do besides being the foil to Phil and Luke’s magic act, the writers imagine that Alex is driving her crazy because Haley is no longer in the house to provide a focus for her scorn. Alex mocks her mother’s crossword skills and TV choices (“Try to mix in a book every once in a while”), until Claire figures out that the younger Dunphy daughter needs an opposing force for balance. And over in irritating land, Jay looks forward to escaping to San Francisco for work and for a night of rest away from Gloria’s bed-hogging, foghorn-snoring ways. When the meeting ends early, he checks into a local hotel instead of going home, only to be ratted out by Manny who likes to lounge in the lobby for a little peace and quiet (“The library’s such a pick-up scene,” he explains). Other than Gloria dramatically intoning, “When you’re married to me, you’re going to get yelled at many times!,” this set of pregnancy gags doesn’t bring anything fresh to the table.
This season is off to a strong start, even if this week’s episode represents more of a holding action or slight backtrack than a confident step forward. Ty Burrell has recommitted to one of the great sitcom characters of our time, and he’s on fire again this week; Eric Stonestreet is also doing outstanding work after struggling in the last couple of seasons to find the right pitch for his tricky character. But I’ll be glad when Julie Bowen is no longer stuck with a character trying to shore up her self-esteem with Gloria’s baby fat, and when Manny finally gets a plotline of his very own.
- When something explodes in the Dunphy house and Claire asks where Luke is, Phil reminds her: “Spontaneous human combustion is very rare.”
- Mitchell needs to buy a birthday present for one of Lily’s friends. “Don’t be thrown by the invitation,” Cam counsels him. “It is a pirates party, not a Pilates party.”
- Poor Cam is shunned in the faculty lounge during lunch, perhaps because of his treble clef sweatshirt. “The shop teacher spilled juice on it. He said it was an accident, but it wasn’t an accident!”
- The one saving grace of the Jay-and-Gloria hotel farce comes when Jay is frantically trying to keep Gloria from finding out he’s not in San Francisco after she claims to have flown up to meet him. It’s great fun to see Ed O’Neill scramble to convey touristic enthusiasm: “When you eat that chowder, make sure it’s in one of those bread bowls! You can eat the bowl!”