Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A distinctive structure helps Modern Family provide some emotional clarity

Illustration for article titled A distinctive structure helps Modern Family provide some emotional clarity

“A lot can happen in five minutes.”

That’s the title card that pops up after the cold open of this week’s Modern Family. After Cam and Mitchell have seen their flight delayed because of mechanical difficulties, and after they’ve taken quite the dose of sleeping pills, that title card splashes across the screen. It’s a noticeable change for Modern Family, something that immediately distinguishes “Five Minutes” as different from any other episode this season. Not every experiment in storytelling works for the show—it was only two weeks ago that “Pig Blood Rising” and its comedy of errors crashed and burned—but this one does. By allowing each separate story to play out individually, rather than cutting back and forth between them, there’s a cohesion and efficiency that keeps the episode feeling remarkably light.

It’s not just the narrowed focus that works to the episode’s benefit; it’s also the fact that each storyline boasts a different tone. Other than the whole “five minutes” thing, there’s no substantial connecting theme, and that ends up working in the episode’s favor. Rather than trying to force some sort of overarching theme and tie it all together—I’m looking at you and your convoluted storytelling again, “Pig Moon Rising”—the individual sections are allowed to unroll organically and stand alone as pseudo-short films, albeit wrapped in the usual sitcom tropes.

Choosing the “best” section is fruitless because of the different tones, but the opening stretch, which sees Cam and Mitchell struggling to make it to their next gate while high as a kite, is by far the funniest and most inspired of the bunch. As the sleeping pills really kick in, the couple struggles to comprehend anything around them. First, that means not understanding that they’ll be grabbing a connecting flight in Dallas and that they have to rush to Gate 32 to make it on time. When Mitchell writes the gate number on his arm it only causes more confusion, leading to them trying to puzzle out the mysterious number while also thinking that if they’re ever going to survive in Dallas they’ll need to buy a bunch of hats. The whole section is delightfully manic, with both Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson turning in great performances that strike the right tone, finding the absurd without going over the top. Apparently when it comes to drugs, Modern Family consistently knocks it out of the park.

What’s nice about the structure of this episode is that even the less interesting storylines feel tightly written. That’s the case with Jay, Gloria, and Manny this week. Their plot doesn’t have an emotional or inventive hook like the others do, but the brevity of the scene means that the stronger aspects stand out. So, while there’s not much to love in the usual bickering between Gloria and Jay while Manny panics about finding a parking spot on a busy street, there’s still revelations in the smaller moments, like Jay genuinely apologizing to Gloria after she vocalizes how his joking about her longwinded stories in front of their friends really hurt her. Of course, Jay has to go and ruin the moment by undercutting his own sad, moving story with a boast about how great he is at telling it, but that’s just what you get with Jay at this point.

Where the structure of “Five Minutes” truly shines is in allowing two drawn-out stories to finally be given some semblance of momentum. For weeks now there have been two storylines spinning their wheels: Alex dating Ben behind everyone’s back, and Haley and Rainer’s relationship. Both stories have been ill-defined; there’s been little exploration of the emotional connection between either couple, and when it comes to Haley and Rainer there’s been no real look at the significance of their relationship, which is important when you consider how serious their commitment seems to be.


“Five Minutes” gives both stories just enough space to flesh out some details. For Alex and Ben that means finally being able to openly celebrate their feelings for each other, as Phil and Claire show up at her dorm room, concerned about her distance from them lately, only to find her happy with Ben. Claire initially doesn’t take the news well—and understandably so, as Ben has now kissed both mother and daughter—but as Phil points out, the whole reason they came to see Alex was to make sure she was doing okay, and that she was working on her own life and building connections with people. Maybe later they’ll muse on how both of their daughters are in pretty weird relationships.

Where Ben and Alex are just beginning their romance, it would seem Rainer and Haley’s is coming to an end. When he proposes to her on his birthday, panic sets in for both of them. Rainer is suddenly unsure about his gut instinct when a sudden storm proves his weather prediction wrong, and Haley, really registering her partner’s age for the first time, reckons with the fact that she’s so young and has so much of her life ahead of her, and that a lot of her potential could vanish if she gets married. What’s touching about the whole scene is that its largely devoid of hysterics. Instead, both Rainer and Haley approach the likely end of their relationship with clear heads. When Haley points out that Rainer seems to be as unsure about their relationship as she is, he responds by saying, “I was hoping you’d be sure enough for both of us.” It’s an insightful moment, showing how these two have been leaning on each other in a way that’s perhaps more about co-dependency than meaningful emotional support. In that moment, where a small truth is revealed, the appeal of “Five Minutes” becomes clear, as its distinctive structure allows for character-based revelations without all the baggage of attending to other stories.


Stray observations

  • “Are you the proprietor of this haberdashery?” asks Mitchell to a man selling hats in the airport.
  • Mitchell has a very solid reason for not wanting to leave Cam behind: “I can’t go to Dallas without you. The portions are so big!”
  • Phil’s obsession with Lifetime movies makes a lot of sense. Also, the titles are wonderfully close to their real-life counterparts, especially From Straight Edge To Straight Jacket.
  • Claire is worried about Alex when she sees she’s doing nothing but drinking wine in a bathrobe while petting her cat. “Why? Take away the cat and I’m basically you.”