In my review of “Aunt Mommy,” last week’s very good episode of Modern Family, I took issue with the show’s usual third-act routine, in which all three branches of the extended Dunphy-Pritchett-Tucker-Delgado clan convene at some kind of contrived family gathering. “Virgin Territory” actually does things in reverse. At the beginning of the episode, the family sits gathered around a very crowded brunch table, then afterward, they all go off in different directions. As formulaic as the third-act gathering can sometimes be, there’s a very good reason Modern Family relies on it so heavily: It’s a great way to maintain order. Don't get me wrong. “Virgin Territory” is a very funny episode, but it suffers from a bit of narrative entropy. Given just how much is going on—by my count, five different storylines—a bit more order might have helped.
One of the highlights of “Aunt Mommy” was the moment when, seemingly out of nowhere, Luke called his cousin Lily a “mess of a person.” His disdain was so visceral and real, but also so totally irrational, it was hard not to find the non-sequitur funny. At the beginning of “Virgin Territory,” I was hopeful that Luke’s beef with Lily might become a running gag on the show. As she sits at the table saying adorable toddler things, Luke stares at her resentfully from across the room. “We need to take her down,” he tells Manny. Together, they concoct a Rube Goldberg-esque cookie trap with which they'll ensnare their adversary. It’s one of those overly complicated visual gags Modern Family just can't seem to resist, and it's usually the kind of high-concept joke that rubs me the wrong way, but the idea that two tween boys would capture and torture their tiny cousin with a plate of cookies is amusing enough that the contrivance can be forgiven.
Also, as mean-spirited as this probably sounds, I’m all for the War on Lily, not because I have anything against her, necessarily, but because I think Luke’s bottomless hatred for her is pretty entertaining (also, I have always really enjoyed Luke’s unsettling weirdness). Unfortunately, though, the Manny-Luke storyline abruptly morphs into something far less interesting: another subplot where Manny tries to woo an uninterested female classmate. After a very funny scene in Cam’s car—“Score!” Luke yells when he discovers a half-eaten granola bar—the cousins decide to go out for a (very cautious) joyride. Suddenly they’re acting like Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne in Bridesmaids, driving back and forth in front of Miranda’s lemonade stand until she decides to pay attention. Too bad they didn't stick with the war.
The clever thing about “Virgin Territory” is how the cookie trap accident is the precipitating event for virtually everything else in the episode. Cam slips on the spilled milk, then fakes his injury so he can search Claire’s kitchen for his missing piece of Tupperware. The storyline gives Eric Stonestreet a chance to do the kind of big, slapstick physical comedy at which he excels. (Cam’s fall is also a pretty obvious metaphor for the unifying theme of the episode, which is dealing with the aftermath of various “verbal” slips.)
The spilled milk also means a trip to the “My Sweet Companion” doll hospital so Lily can get her outrageously expensive designer toy—a.k.a. “Beatrice”—fixed by a trained medical professional. (“In my village, a doll was an apple on a fork,” Gloria says, disgusted.) But just when it looks like we might get a fun little spoof of “American Girl” culture (paging Zooey Deschanel), the episode takes a turn. Alex lets it slip that Haley is no longer a virgin, and, for the rest of the afternoon, Phil is haunted by the revelation. The visual of Phil, wandering around looking shell-shocked in a room scattered with dolls and adolescent girls, is deeply hilarious. But, as always on Modern Family, the humor is resonant because there’s real emotion lurking beneath it. Phil loves his daughter, realizes that sex is a healthy thing, and trusts her to protect herself, but he’s also not quite ready to accept that she’s all grown up. Nor is he able to tell her directly how he feels, opting instead to send his message through a veiled conversation about where to eat lunch: “Whatever seems right to you. I trust you.” Would that more dads were like Phil Dunphy.
So, the Phil stuff is pretty great, but we’ve got two other storylines yet to deal with. After Mitch confesses to tampering with Jay’s legendary hole-in-one many years ago, he follows his father to the golf course to issue an apology. I think this does a great job portraying the tension between Mitch and his eminently heterosexual father, Jay. There’s a whole lot of love there, if not always very much in common—at least that’s what Mitch assumes. As it turns out, Jay is more sentimental than his son realizes, able to describe in vivid detail the day he first shared a beer with his son (when Mitch was just 14!). It’s a nice character beat, but it’s over before anyone really has the time to absorb it.
Rounding out (or cluttering up, depending on your perspective) the episode is Claire’s ill-fated trip to yoga class. Gloria decides to tag along, and Claire makes up a string of lame excuses for not wanting to go. The idea of someone as loud and irrepressible as Gloria invading one’s yoga class really is pretty annoying, and we all know Claire is probably a little more uptight than your average yogi. But then she reveals a whopper: She’s been lying about going to yoga and has actually been sneaking off to a shooting range. It’s a funny reveal, though it hardly does much to counter Claire’s crazy-beeyotch reputation. And if anyone could use a little meditation, it’s Claire. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong about this storyline, or any of the others, really; it’s just that it all seems a little scattered in the end. You don’t need to put a bow on it, but a loose knot wouldn’t hurt.
- Claire: “I just want to go lie down in a dark room and breathe.” Gloria: “That sounds like yoga.”
- Phil on the food court: “The Honorable Judge Cinnabon presiding.”
- Manny on Miranda: “A dream wrapped in a wish poured into jeggings.”