When we want to get all jargony and academic as critics, we talk about formalism and stuff. Normally, formalism is understood in contrast to something like realism. It’s the difference between an experimental film that’s primarily intended to play with the medium of cinema itself, and a narrative film that’s primarily intended to tell a story with some suspension of disbelief.
The realist contrast doesn’t quite work when we’re talking about comedy, because sitcoms are more interested in making you laugh than in being believable (although believability and fantasy are elements that can be juggled to produce humorous effects). So when I say that I didn’t find this week’s Modern Family very funny but still found it intriguing and even somewhat daring in structure, I’m juxtaposing formalistic interest with… well, let’s just call it comedic effectiveness. The ability to produce laughs. You may think I’ve gone off the deep end finding something to praise about a comedy that doesn’t succeed in being funny, but let me make the case that the specific kind of unfunniness we saw this week is a good sign for the show.
Not that there weren’t some clever, even fleet bits of timing and staging. Things look good on the comedic front early on when Luke tries to offer Haley (heading off for her orange-vested, court-mandated community service) a shiv made out of a table knife. “You make a shiv out of a rusty spoon or a shard of glass,” Phil protests. “Or a human femur!” Claire triumphantly interjects. “Exactly, be creative,” Phil agrees. It’s terrific to see the two of them on the same crazy-page for a change, and a harbinger of yet another in a season-long string of awe-inspiring Phil performances. When Mitchell points out that he was against changing the hardware on Lily’s dresser, not “because you lack a designer’s eye and fear change” as Cam charges, but “because we’re still using a spatula to get at Lily’s clothes,” there’s a wonderful specificity to the situation and the observation that elicits a genuine laugh.
But it turns out that the episode’s writer Ben Karlin (of the Onion and the Daily Show/Colbert Report nexus) has more in mind for that knobless dresser than a spatula gag. It becomes the offstage symbol haunting Mitch and Cam’s main storyline, in which Cam engages in tree-sitting to save what he and Mitch call “Treeona Elmsley” from the guys with backhoes and bulldozers. We’re more than halfway through the episode when this theme, the real meaning of the storyline, finally emerges: When Cam gets the call that, as the understudy in a community theater production of Cats, he’s needed to take over for that day’s matinee, he begs Mitchell to take his place in the tree, failing to finish what he’s started once again.
This kind of surprising, unconventional, yet confident structuring happens in nearly all of the storylines—which, despite being many in number, unfold with such an organic lack of haste that the episode is never in danger of feeling overstuffed. In addition to Mitch and Cam sittin’ in a tree, we have Manny feeling like an outsider at a sports-themed birthday party, a plotline that morphs, midway through the episode, into an analysis of Jay’s usurping of Phil’s role as the jokemeister among the group of dads at the party as overcompensation for feeling out of place himself. We have Claire chaperoning Gloria at Costco because the latter's pregnancy brain makes it impossible for her to shop like a normal person, morphing, late in the half-hour, into a tables-turned shoplifting charge for Claire who walks out with an unbought sweatshirt on her back. And we don’t even get to Alex trying to take an embarrassing picture of chain-gang Haley to post on Facebook until a couple of commercial breaks have already gone by.
These shape-shifting, well-nigh evolutionary storylines don’t have a lot of laughs. The shock of the unexpected isn’t used here to provoke us to laugh, but to pull us into a little collection of short stories, each with its own internal rhythm. Normally when an episode undertakes three or four storylines, it has to establish them all in the first act and cut regularly between them to get them all developed and culminated and ended in the scant 22 minutes allotted. That means that the story beats all tend to march in lockstep, quite predictably; if it’s not done well, it can feel either perfunctory and humdrum, or rushed and desperate. I can’t remember the last time I saw a half-hour sitcom try to do this much with this little conventional structure.
And even though, watching with formalist interest, I was genuinely shocked when the Alex cameraphone business emerged out of nowhere, when the other storylines were already well underway (some already taking the turn to become something other than what they started out to be), the whole thing didn’t feel like some overt experiment. It was perfectly recognizable as an episode of Modern Family, in outward form as well as character beats. To me, that signals a real hidden bravado behind the scenes. Steven Levitan directs, and in letting Karlin’s stories undergo these leisurely evolutions and proceed at their own syncopated, peculiar pace, he shows real courage. From Karlin, a fresh and creative way of approaching the ensemble sitcom; from Levitan, serious balls in executing without falling back on safe conventions.
No, not all that funny. But any show that can deliver this kind of undercover innovation, and without sacrificing its well-established personality, deserves both applause and respect.
- Kenny Van Effington, Cam and Mitchell’s insurance guy, has the big cat paws that Cam is so excited to fill. When Cam returns to the tree after his matinee he excitedly announces that he gets to star in two more performances because “Kenny Van Effington’s toenail is infected!”
- The birthday party Manny attends is dubbed the Doug-Lympics. Which would make more sense if it took place every four years, or if Doug was named Al.
- I truly love the easy, practiced camaraderie of the dads that Phil joins at the party. Everybody has a nickname: Phil in the Blank! Bill O’Rights! Jerry-Atric! (Well, everybody except Allen Yang’s dad. As Manny bitterly reports, Allen only gets invited to represent an Asian country, just like Manny always gets stuck being Mexico.)
- When Jay jumps into the joshing with a succession of stories where Phil is the butt of the joke, it renders perfectly plausible Phil’s eruption of inflatable-glove violence in the bouncy boxing ring. Among those stories: the time Phil came a-wooing with his boombox a la Say Anything (“Yeah, with John Mahoney,” Jay reminisces), and Jay turned the sprinkler on him and ruined a boombox, twelve D batteries, and an Olivia Newton-John cassingle.
- Alex is very committed to her revenge on Haley for posting hideous pictures of her on Facebook that get tons of likes. She hasn’t completely lost her perspective, though: “In a few years, I hope to have some more friends and not have time for this kind of thing.”
- In the movie version of Cam’s “Bizarre Protest Saves Park Tree” story, Cam would be played by Sean Penn or maybe Anne Hathaway if the producers wanted to go for a female lead. In either case, the long-suffering partner would be played by Julianne Moore.
- “Fine, I’ll put on my sporty shoes.”