Early on in “Tough Love,” Pam, Cam’s sister, wanders into Cam and Mitchell’s house with her baby. She’s barely moving her neck, telling the guys that she pulled a muscle while changing the baby and that she needs to go get a massage to get it all worked out. Cam, being the nice (or gullible, according to Mitchell) guy he is, says it’s not a problem. It’s a simple enough setup for the episode, but it left me worried, mostly because I have an incredibly low tolerance for all thing Pam. She’s the embodiment of Modern Family’s most obnoxious tendencies, and her presence usually acts as a precursor to an episode that’s nothing but contrived shenanigans crafted for cheap, easy laughs.

In fact, much of the setup of “Tough Love” seems ripe for that kind of broad comedy. Phil, after leaving the company he works for, ventures out into the woods to prove how self-sufficient he is before he starts his own business. Claire takes over a truck route at work when no one else is available. Cam and Mitchell are left in charge of Pam’s baby, which leads to Lily accidentally being left in charge. Then there’s Manny, who’s home from school with his 30-year-old professor/girlfriend, and Gloria is struggling to adapt.

These are stories made for easy jokes, from the age difference in Manny’s relationship to the show’s constant need to put Phil in situations that question his masculinity. Shockingly enough though, the episode doesn’t go off the rails. Instead, it (mostly) shifts away from the most reductive jokes and crafts something that’s more low-key, and even kind of touching by the time the credits roll. The episode largely succeeds because it doesn’t devolve into pure chaos; Pam’s baby is left with at home with Lily and not a single terrible thing happens!

The key to making the potentially ludicrous storylines of “Tough Love” work is the show’s focus on following a simple story. By grounding the wackier elements in a structured story that builds to a meaningful conclusion, the episode avoids slipping into the kind of comedy that can grow tiresome because of how stilted and well-worn it is. Phil’s trek into the wilderness, where he plans to spend six days all by himself, is probably the most fertile story for some sort of broad comedy. Phil’s masculinity is constantly being questioned, not only by the show itself but also his own family members. Having Phil reckon with his own insecurities is a perfectly fine thing for Modern Family to do, but it’s strange that nine season into its run it’s still going to that well for jokes and plot premises.

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“Tough Love” turns that idea around though by interweaving Phil’s story with Claire’s. Having each of them attempting to conquer new feats, to mixed results, creates a parallel that’s rather refreshing. Claire and Phil may seem different on the surface, but they have a lot in common. They’re adventurous, quirky, and quick to take on a challenge even if it’s destined to get them in over their heads. Seeing them each work through their new challenges, followed by Claire showing up to support Phil after he reveals that he was asked to step down rather than choosing to leave his job, is rewarding because it reminds us why these two fell for each other, and why they’ve worked together all these years.

I can’t say that Phil and Cam’s story works quite as well, but it still has its moments. The reason it doesn’t hit the same heights is because it’s a scattered plot. The idea is that Mitchell wants to teach Lily a lesson in responsibility and Cam a lesson in gullibility, and yet the two stories hardly have any bearing on each other. That means that the basic thread gets lost. Mitchell has to be in too many places at once, and the underlying themes never really connect. Still, the build to Mitchell lecturing Cam about not connecting the dots or paying attention to the finer details of situations, only to look into the stroller and see that he’s left Pam’s baby at home with Lily, is a well-structured gag.

The story of Gloria adjusting to Manny becoming an adult with his own sense of independence plays a little better than Cam and Mitchell’s story, and that’s thanks in large part of the emotional nuance. Sure, Gloria chokes Manny’s older girlfriend in a moment of parental angst, but for the most part Modern Family avoids all the obvious pitfalls, instead using this opportunity to truly dig into the shifting dynamic of this family. That means that Manny is able to open up about how scared he is to have sex with Karen, which gives Jay a rare moment to be the good parent with solid advice. That’s followed by Gloria learning to accept that Manny is going to need more freedom now that he’s out of the house, and yet a sweet coda confirms that he’s not quite there yet.

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All of this is to say that “Tough Love” may not be perfect, but it feels a little more like a classic episode of Modern Family, or at least a ninth-season version of a classic episode. Each arc, outside of Cam and Mitchell’s at least, takes various insecurities and uses them to build to moments of emotional honesty and clarity.


Stray observations

  • Apparently Manny has been bringing teachers home since he was a kid. “His ninth birthday party turned into a PTA meeting.”
  • The swerve of Shane actually being an undercover cop is just so strange and unnecessary. It’s hardly an issue with the episode, but rather an instance of that storyline having nowhere to go.
  • Jay isn’t so worried about Manny dating someone who’s 30: “Manny wasn’t a child when I met him.”
  • “Good thing I smell like berries, honey, and raw fish!”

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