When a sitcom gets all its major characters together in a single, extended, episode-long scene, you can be sure of one thing: They will form into groups, stand a few scant feet away from another character, and talk about that character as if they can’t be heard. I love this trope. It’s a classic appeal to suspension of disbelief that goes all the way back to the stage. Every time it happens, I’m reminded of the artificiality of the entertainment format that I’m enjoying, its conventions, tricks, and shortcuts. The single-camera laugh-track-less sitcom dispenses with so many of those concessions to theatrical necessity, that I find myself appreciating them even more when they appear. Those moments are a signal that the creative team is celebrating the sitcom form, not fleeing it.
“Yard Sale” features a lot of those conversations. Because of the single-camera framing, it comes across as far more scattered than a traditional sitcom, where the staging would be caught more often in well-populated wide and medium shots. Here, there are almost no shots where we see a large chunk of the yard sale, or of the customers milling around; the camera stays in that pseudo-documentary mode, tight on whichever momentary subplot we’re following. I think the pacing would be improved with a bit more of an alternation between wide and narrow, ensemble and subplot.
But quibbles aside, I appreciate the Modern Family team putting together an episode where classic gags and time-honored convention coincide with (relatively) current references. The premise that brings all our families together is the group yard sale that Manny has organized to benefit UNICEF. A yard sale on a sitcom always means fights over whether to sell something or not (Mitch trying to prevent Cam from selling his fat pants in case he yo-yos back to his previous weight) and a mysterious object that somebody doesn’t want any questions asked about (Gloria’s suitcase that Manny drags down from the attic before she forbids him to look inside). The best parts of “Yard Sale” are its addition of suspicious proprietor Jay, who believes such a sale is an invitation for strangers to try to take advantage of you, and terrified biker Phil, who gets taken up on his professed desire to ride Jay’s motorcycle and ends up re-enacting 127 Hours.
Jay’s moments in the spotlight are the episode’s highlights. Invite people onto your driveway, he says, and pretty soon, “It’s just a local call. Can I use the bathroom. My mother needs to lie down.” When a customer tries to shave 15 cents off the price of a 50-cent ashtray, he does his best to humiliate the guy by noting his expensive clothes and shoes, but caves when the customer shoots back with an observation about his expensive house and car. “35 cents it is,” he mumbles, defeated; “Can you break a $50?” the brazen bargainer asks. Later, a hipster demands a piece of bread to test whether a toaster works, and Jay tells him he’ll have to roll the dice with his purchase. “It doesn’t have to be bread; it can be a bagel or a frozen waffle,” the man offers helpfully, before Jay asks where he got the item and he admits “from the kitchen.” Watching Jay’s worst instincts about humanity get confirmed never ceases to be amusing.
And while I’m not wild about the idea of the Phil-trapped-under-a-motorcycle confessional, any callback like “Why didn’t I wear my shaaaaaaaants?!” screamed to the sky, followed by determined sawing with a tiny Swiss Army knife blade, has to be given its props. I also love the pure Phil-ness of his swing from out of his depth and backed into a corner, to relaxed and confident (spurred by remembering that time when Fonzie put together a motorcycle while blind), to desperate and preparing for death. The whole subplot may be mostly set-up for that series of clips from the confessional in the epilogue, but Ty Burrell tosses off “anything by Heavy D” in the middle of his trapped-under-a-motorcyle playlist with such glorious distracted aplomb that even if that were the only joke, it would be worth it.
Similarly, the shagginess of Gloria’s secret past as a pageant ventriloquist, and the fussy plotting of Claire’s attempt to open Alex’s eyes to the gayness of boyfriend Michael, are almost redeemed by a few moments of greatness. Cam gets some terrific monologues about his not-so-shameful past as a teenage skirt-chaser; when Mitch points out that he works his old flames into casual conversation surprisingly often, he protests: “How am I supposed to walk into a dry cleaner and not mention my girlfriend Wendy Jo Martinizer?” Gloria spits out some marvelously bizarre lines, like “You’re wrong, whoever you are!” when Michael offers some unsolicited advice, and “A whole day’s pay to see Basic Instinct” as the awkward setup to a gag in her Uncle Grumpy act. And best of all, maybe best of the season: the absolutely classic moment when the kids confront a horrified Gloria with the dummy, a dramatic organ sting sounds, and the camera whips over to Michael trying out a keyboard. “Love this! Sold!”
Sometimes the old ways are the best. Modern Family has that venerable sitcom DNA despite its 21st century trappings, and “Yard Sale” continues a concerted season four effort to stay close to those roots.
- Haley gets a brief Skype appearance to object to her mother selling her John Mayer poster, only to be told “Even John Mayer doesn’t have a John Mayer poster anymore” as well as that her dad added the inscription “To Haley, your body is a wonderland,” above the pre-printed autograph. (Ew.)
- Phil gets goaded onto the motorcycle by a rather evil Claire determined to shame him for his nerdy Street Strider, the cardiovascular benefits of which he touts as life-prolonging. “Yeah, but what life, and with whom?” Claire muses.
- Claire acts like she’s waited her whole life to see Gloria’s ventriloquist act: “Whaddya need? Stool? Glass of water? Let’s do this!”
- The ashtray marked 50 cents has a chip in it, the bargainer points out. “That’s why it’s sitting on a blanket in my driveway next to some corn cob handles,” Jay explains.
- Cam has a hard time keeping weight off, and it’s easy to see why. “Now I feel terrible,” he says. “This feeling would go great with pie.”