(Photo: ABC)

There’s a lot of potential in “Dear Beloved Family,” an episode that, early on, sees Phil Dunphy rushed to the hospital with inexplicable and sudden stomach pain. After the episode gets past its rather silly, paint-by-numbers cold open—Phil has weird ideas for family traditions and Jay generally hates him, we get it—and into the meat of the story, everybody gets a chance to muse on ideas of death, grief, and existential angst. That might sound depressing, but it also seems necessary for the show. As these characters age they should be forced to reckon with new feelings. Modern Family is at its best when it’s exploring the little moments that, over time, make up a meaningful life. Modern Family has had its fair share of big life moments, from breakups and pregnancies to first kisses and new jobs, but those more “important” moments have always been a way of highlighting the dynamic of the family unit. It’s not the moment, good or bad, that matters, but rather the people you get to share it with.

“Dear Beloved Family” is a strange episode though, never quite earning the sentimentality its clearly aiming for. It’s not a bad episode, but it is one that feels like a massive missed opportunity. This isn’t just me feeling like my own personal expectations were left hanging. Rather, the episode itself clearly calls to mind some of the earliest Modern Family episodes, hoping to replicate some sort of emotional moment at its end, and yet it continually gets lost along the way. Essentially, when Modern Family uses its signature instrumental acoustic guitar to score the final scene, something it rarely does these days, you expect a certain kind of emotional revelation. That just doesn’t happen here.

What’s puzzling is that the final stretch of “Dear Beloved Family” is adorable in the way so many of the show’s codas used to be. The formula for the first four seasons or so involved introducing a conflict or misunderstanding, watching as the chaos unfolded, all before that instrumental acoustic guitar kicked in and feelings were resolved and everybody learned a valuable lesson about what it means to be part of a family. Obviously that formula had to go—you can only rely on it for so long—but every now and then the show trots it out again. “Dear Beloved Family” boasts a sappy coda that feels like the show of old: after Phil’s surgery to remove his gall bladder the whole family gathers by his bedside to revive the Dunphy Games, the crazy idea they shot down at the beginning of the episode. It’s sweet, but it also feels like too little too late.

The problem is that so much of “Dear Beloved Family” isn’t about Phil at all. There’s the sense that Phil’s sudden health scare has impacted everyone in a different way, but it’s a flimsy storytelling device because there isn’t much follow through. From Jay’s inability to talk to Joe about death—he just tells him that he’ll live forever because of advances in technology—to Cam’s freak out about Mitchell replacing him with another husband when he’s gone, the show wants us to see such outlandish reactions as a necessary masking of their true grief. That never really comes across though, and the result is more storylines where Cam and Jay feel like irrational people wreaking havoc on those around them.

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At the very least though, Cam and Mitchell’s storyline is a perfectly fine comedy of errors. When Cam invites Caleb, a massage therapist whose name Mitchell blurts out as a replacement for Cam should he die, over to the house, everything goes wrong. From Cam continually finding ways to enter the room during Mitchell’s massage, to the miscommunication about a threesome, there’s plenty of laughs to go around from a bevy of misunderstandings. It’s good plotting, even if it doesn’t give Cam’s apparent anxiety over a potential medical condition much time to sink in. Jay, on the other hand, remains a terrible character to spend time with this season. All he does is complain about other people and actively sabotage the lives of the people he supposedly loves.

Jay’s complete lack of character definition is representative of a larger problem with the show at the moment. So many stories from week to week rely on characters acting in a way that doesn’t feel right. Alex, Haley, Luke, and Manny in particular are empty character archetypes that can be molded to fit whatever the conflict of the week happens to be. That’s why so much of “Dear Beloved Family” doesn’t feel like it earns its emotional payoff: we have no sense of who these character are anymore.

With that said, using Claire as an anchor for the episode is a smart choice; if anything, she should have been given more screen time. Her panic about finding Phil’s beloved “Surgery Bear” is the one earned bit of grief in this episode. Her mask, her way of hiding how much this has scared her, is the only one that feels grounded in something real. When she hugs Manny late in the episode, after talking about Phil’s infectious love of life, and lingers a little longer because she needs to, it’s a beautiful moment that tells us everything we need to know about her and her love for Phil. It’s a moment that feels like the Modern Family of old, even without the acoustic guitar.

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Stray observations

  • The image of Gloria holding up Phil’s long stilts pants as he’s wheeled into the ER is a good one.
  • Phil calling Jay the “town elder” is the kind of subtle jab that I enjoy. That guy is especially cranky this season.
  • “Probably just my stilter’s hip flaring up.”
  • Phil, doped up: “They’re going to shave me!” Mitchell: “Should we be worried those are his last words?”
  • Manny having a closet full of stuffed animals at college is exactly the kind of stuff I’m talking about when I mention that the kids don’t feel like characters anymore, but rather just vessels for strained punchlines.

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