Well, if that wasn’t a Christmas-themed miracle.
It’s no secret Modern Family isn’t having its best year, and while the show remains a pleasant enough diversion, it has gradually lowered expectations over the last season or two. What a surprise, then, that “The Old Man & The Tree” is the nimblest, most elegantly structured episode all year, and easily the best Christmas show Modern Family has ever done.
It’s odd Modern Family took this long to deliver a guns-blazing Christmas installment. Christmas episodes are an easy mark for family sitcoms, which are at their most relatable when they get to depict the consumerism, pathos, and stress typical of the season.
But it isn’t that Modern Family has delivered bad Christmas episodes—though “Express Christmas” wasn’t exactly a high cider mark—it’s that the show actually hasn’t done them that often. “The Old Man” makes only the third Christmas-themed episode in the show’s five seasons, and to watch it is to feel like the writers have been squirreling their best jokes away to make it through the harsh winter. Bryan Cranston returns to the director’s chair for the first time since season three’s masterful “Election Day,” and paired with a cracking script from Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh, Cranston gets to put his name on the first Modern Family episode in ages that resembles the show at its creative peak.
“The Old Man” starts out ho-ho-ho-hum, with Phil being a ninny, this time trying to NordicTrack his way to Canada before the year is out, Haley and Alex bickering as they move into separate bedrooms, Cameron and Mitchell scrambling to get Lily the season’s must-have toy, and Jay and Manny heading off to cut a fresh Christmas tree. The setup feels so mundane, it’s all the more surprising when the story starts to ricochet in what feels like a million different directions.
There are so many hilarious moments it’s hard to pick the episode’s best story, but I have to give a slight edge to Cam and Mitch, who veer into cringe-comedy territory when Cam mistakenly takes Lily to a charity event for needy families and can’t figure out how to make an elegant exit. He tries to redeem himself by giving away the presents that stream out of the car after Mitchell arrives, only to realize he’s handed a Robert Mapplethorpe book to a child.
I was also really fond of Claire and Gloria’s instant sibling rivalry. One of my biggest complaints about Modern Family is how often the writers make Claire the brunt of the joke, especially as it concerns her insecurities around Gloria. It was so refreshing to see a situation in which it’s Gloria who is done in by her insecurities, with her mother heaping praise on Claire as Gloria melts into a puddle. The cleverest bit was having Gloria resort to speaking Spanish, in a last-ditch effort to exclude Claire at all costs, only to have her mother chide her for her unintelligible American accent.
While I’m on the subject of spontaneous family dynamics, I also loved Haley and Alex’s misfortune as Mrs. Claus and an elf at the mall, with braying children clawing their way into the tiny house as Mrs. Claus struggles to accept the impending reality of having to hit the North Pole bar scene again at her advanced age.
All three stories end sweetly, with Lily giving up her “Puppy Pound,” Claire learning a new appreciation for DeDe’s annual slippers, and Haley and Alex sleeping together on Christmas Eve like they did when they were small. It represents what Modern Family is at its best, a tart family sitcom with a sugary core and wit to spare. It would have been easy for these stories to become treacly, but the tone is exactly right. Even when I was preparing to be slightly annoyed by the show’s return to greeting-card narration to end the show, I was surprised again when the speech turned out to be Luke’s attempt to excuse the mountain of recycling Dylan couldn’t manage to get rid of.
One sharp episode is not enough to officially declare an upswing, but “The Old Man” convinced me that while Modern Family’s glory days are long past, its present can still be a gift.
Lily slayed as usual this week. “It’s important to keep busy.”
Jay and Manny on Olde Time Christmas: “Christmas is real trees and egg nog, Perry Como and Bing on the hi-fi.” “Now you’re just making up words.”
Nice tag, too, with Phil as Gandalf during his Canada trek.
Seriously though, what are his-and-his shower clogs?
Dylan is being used to great effect these days.
If I had to quibble, I’d do it with Pepper’s “12 Gays of Christmas” party theme. I’m sure it’s really fun for the writers to bat around gay holiday puns but it’s a well they’ve tapped a few times too many.