Modern Family: "Three Dinners"
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Modern Family: "Three Dinners"

In last week’s review, I talked about how latter-day Modern Family has consistently chosen comfort and longevity over growth and daring. What I should have also mentioned is that I don’t care so much about growth or daring if the show can do what it does well consistently and make me laugh a few times. The issue with Modern Family these days is that it has become woefully unreliable. The lack of innovation is just the twist of the knife. “Three Dinners” continues season five's subtle, gradual uptick; it’s a solid episode that does nothing to push against the show’s boundaries, but it was brisk and had some solid laughs, so why quibble?

Structurally, “Three Dinners” is Modern Family at its simplest, with the three family factions confined to their own plots without any overlap between them. As the title suggests, there’s not much more linking the three stories together besides the fact that they each involve meals and awkward conversations. The Dunphys had the strongest material of the episode, with Phil and Claire taking Haley out for dinner, and trying unsuccessfully to ply her with basil-infused mojitos to soften the blow when they tell her she’s adrift since getting kicked out of college.

I’m growing an appreciation for what the writers are doing with Haley this season. For one thing, it’s nice to see some acknowledgement of the fact that Haley has been adrift from sometime, not just within the narrative, but she’s felt untethered from the show all season. It’s just a matter of the other characters having vague arcs while it has been unclear exactly what’s going on with Haley. The other kids are experiencing growing pains, each in their own way, but since Haley got expelled, it hasn't been clear what she’s supposed to be doing other than perpetually toying with the idea of reuniting with Dylan.

But “Three Dinners” showed a Haley who has been maturing right along with the other kids, albeit in her own lackadaisical, ten-hours-sleep kind of way. Haley is on the ditzy side, to be sure, but she’s gotten a few choice moments over the years where she’s been able to turn situations to her advantage precisely because she’s lowered people’s expectations of her. Here, she gets to hit her parents in the face with humble pie, revealing she has built an audience for a cash-generating fashion blog and hopes to parlay it into becoming a stylist. (Or becoming someone who teaches fashion bloggers how to weed out the pervs.)

At the Pritchetts’, Jay and Gloria’s couples’ night is ruined when Jay finds out that his BFF Shorty is moving to Costa Rica. The writers have leaned heavily on Jay’s macho stoicism over the years, so I didn’t expect anything new, but the half-twist of having both Jay and Shorty fall apart as they say goodbye was pretty funny, and well-earned. And it gave Manny one of the episode’s best lines: “You’re the Greatest Generation, but why can’t you feel?”

While I liked all three stories, Mitch and Cam’s dinner was definitely my least favorite of the three, though it made me laugh even as I wished it would do something different. Mitch and Cam always seem to be barely tolerating each other, and their relationship frequently looks less like an engaged couple than chummy roommates in denial. So I perked up a little when they began by acknowledging they had been snippy with each other while planning the wedding. I thought there might be a moment of doubt, something that would help them rediscover what it is they love about each other.

That moment did come, sort of, but only through their intervention in another couple’s botched proposal. The story was pretty funny, if familiar, but I’d have loved to see a story that addresses the odd vibe between Mitch and Cam that does more than this episode did, flicking at it a little before pouring all the energy into another couple’s woes. Still, I laughed fairly often, so again, I’m calling it a win.

In the first three seasons, “Three Dinners” would have been an average episode, but in season five, it’s pretty sterling. It couldn’t have hurt that Abraham Higginbotham, Steven Levitan and Jeffrey Richman penned the script together, with Levitan behind the camera. It didn’t feel quite like Modern Family getting its mojo back, but it came darn close.

Stray observations:

  • Alex, Luke and Lily were benched this week, which was a bummer, but I didn’t feel their absence acutely.  

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