The more storylines Modern Family attempts and the more isolated they are from each other, the worse the episode generally turns out to be. This week, we have four plots, and while two of them are generated by the Dunphys dealing with the offscreen death of neighbor Walt, the other two seem to have been dropped into the mix by the random plot generator. While there’s some funny stuff scattered in all the storylines, this kind of scattershot approach isn’t where Modern Family excels, and the result is a thoroughly average half hour.
It’s possible I’m just reacting poorly to the summary dismissal from the Modern Family universe of Philip Baker Hall, living legend (and source of his fair share of last week’s hilarity). His character, Walt Kleezak, dies offscreen before the credits even start scrolling, and without a moment’s pause to grieve, Phil and Claire go straight to trying to help Luke grieve. Luke doesn’t seem to care, which worries Claire; she sets herself the task of helping him deal with his emotions. Meanwhile, Phil realizes while thinking about his old age memories that he’s done a lot more fun things with Haley than he ever did with Alex, and he sets himself the task of having adventures with daughter number two.
Luke in stoneface mode is never not funny, and the biggest laugh I had all night was when he tries to give his mother what she wants: “I feel sad… so very sad…” But the plot is complicated by Claire’s strange business of grinning maniacally when announcing someone’s death. It’s creepy enough to be rather arresting, but it adds one more dollop of whipped topping onto a sitcom sundae that’s already got too many flavors going on. My favorite of the four storylines was Phil taking Alex out, almost entirely for the rapid oscillation between anticipation and disappointment on Phil’s face. First, a seagull takes off with Walt’s dogtags before they can toss them in the ocean, leading to a rather wonderful extended shot of the two of them matter-of-factly getting back in the car. Then Phil walks into a diner, exclaiming, “You can’t expect me to see 'World’s Best Milkshake 50 Miles’ and not drive there!” only to hear immediately: “Machine’s broken.”
In completely unrelated news. Haley has decided to trick her mom and Gloria into letting her have a pool party at Gloria’s, complete with booze and makeout sessions upstairs. Her modus operandi is ambiguity: Gloria agrees if Haley can get a chaperone to whom Claire will agree, and Claire agrees that Haley’s uncle will be a fine chaperone. Of course, Haley means Uncle Manny, and the slender delight of this plotline is Manny trying to act the part: “I don’t think you’re ready up here,” tapping his head toward a young couple while barring them from the bedroom, “for what you were about to do up there.” And when Gloria comes home, he explains his efforts at keeping the party under control with “I can’t tell you how many times I turned off the bathroom light.”
And in the world of underutlized awesome guest stars, Philip Baker Hall has been superceded by Barry Corbin. (Or maybe there’s a rider on one of their contracts that they can never play concurrently-living characters in the same television show.) Corbin is Merle, Cam’s rancher dad who's come to visit, and it turns out that he and Jay don’t like each other. Merle thinks Jay “gives me this cranky look” every time he tries to be nice, and Jay fumes when Merle treats Mitchell as the wife in the relationship. Now this is a modern family dynamic worth exploring, and this storyline is full of little touches that reveal exactly what Mitchell doesn’t notice but sets Jay off—letting Mitchell clear dishes while Cam sticks around for man talk, giving the couple his-and-hers watches, pointing out Mitchell’s girlish giggle. When Merle confesses to Jay that “it makes me feel a tiny bit better to think that the person he’s spending the rest of his life with is a tiny bit of a woman,” it’s not just Corbin’s drawling delivery that makes the line special. This is a well-written and well-conceived situation.
Too bad it has to elbow for room with so many other ideas and characters in far-flung storylines. Sometimes when you overstuff an episode, you end up with less than the sum of the parts. That’s a shame when some of the parts are really good, and others could have been, with more time and a bigger spotlight.
- Phil’s version of letting Luke know about Walt by easy stages is classic: “Next day, they’re trying an experimental drug, fingers crossed; next day, body rejects it, coma.”
- Luke takes an entirely pragmatic approach to Walt’s death: “He said I could take one thing after he died. I wish he’d said two things. I’d have taken that phone with the big buttons.”
- Gloria is sidelined in this episode, but damned if Sofia Vergara doesn’t find a way to steal the scene while she and Lily are building with blocks. Responding to Merle’s assertion that kids love to destroy things, she counters with a Manny story: “I would make the buildings, and he would inspect them, and if they weren’t up to code—ay ay ay, the paperwork!”
- Can I get an animated .gif of Phil tossing napkins in the general direction of upchucking Alex while trying not to succumb himself?