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

A power outage allows Modern Family to indulge the light and the dark

Illustration for article titled A power outage allows Modern Family to indulge the light and the dark

So far this season, Modern Family has adhered to a bit of a strange structure. Early on in the season there seemed to be a few dominant storylines destined to play out for much of the season. After all, the show has often structured its season around a few storylines, finding ways to let them grow individually while also interweaving them when the circumstances called for it. That gave the seasons a sense of purpose, as if even the one-off episodes served the larger narrative vision. This season has struggled to present a clear narrative thread though, and while that doesn’t always signal a downturn in quality—Modern Family is a sitcom after all, so serialized storytelling isn’t exactly its focus—there’s a haphazard nature to the episodes this season that’s left a lot of storylines and characters without any forward momentum.

Sitcoms can, of course, feel free to ignore subplots for a while and then return to them. The seventh season of Modern Family has made quite the habit of doing so. Stories about Gloria’s sauce escapades and Claire’s ascension into her father’s role at his closet company were scattered throughout the first half of this season. They weren’t the focus of every single episode, but they acted as guideposts, as a way of marking the passage of time; Alex’s time away at college works in a similar, but less effective way. Those types of stories can easily be dropped in on because they add little emotional value to the show or to the individual character arcs, meaning that their absence isn’t detrimental to the larger arc of the season.

In other words, the status of Gloria’s sauce can take a backseat on any given week, but the complete lack of focus on Andy and Haley’s relationship spells trouble when “The Storm” tries to use them as emotional grounding. When the power goes out in town and the whole Dunphy/Pritchett clan wait out the storm at Jay and Gloria’s, everyone finds themselves in close quarters, leading to a fair bit of tension and of course a few misunderstandings. Part of that group is Haley and Andy, as Haley continually tries to seduce Andy while he gives her the cold shoulder for fear of moving their physical relationship too quickly, well before their emotional connection has had a chance to catch up.

On paper that’s a perfectly fine subplot—Haley finding a meaningful relationship is one of the few emotional stories that the show hasn’t told yet—but in execution, “The Storm” goes all in, and that feverish pacing, coupled with the relative absence (or even mention of) Andy this season, undercuts the emotional payoff of a rainy kiss. I barely even remembered that Andy and Haley were still a thing—and I’m sure I’m not the only one—so when “The Storm” runs the emotional gamut, from misunderstanding to fight to declaration of love, it all feels rushed. Somewhere in the first half of the season Modern Family lost the thread when it came to Andy and Haley, and yet “The Storm” just pushes forward. Again, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem in most episodes, but their relationship is charged with being one half of the dramatic core of “The Storm,” and it just can’t handle it.

“The Storm” handles its other dramatic B-plot in a much more rewarding fashion. While much of the episode boasts the kind of low-stakes but confident comedy that Modern Family excels at, with Cam and Mitchell trying to impress the “cool girl” at Lily’s school, and Manny and Claire dealing with an awkward encounter, there’s something off about Jay. He’s eager to leave in the middle of the storm, as he’s supposed to meet some of his old friends at a bar. When the storm hits and the power goes out, and when Phil manages to make everything worse because of his need to overcompensate, he’s stuck inside with everyone else. He’s agitated, but it’s not his usual type of annoyance with his family. It’s more manic, pained. Then, the reveal: Jay lost another of his old Navy buddies, and when that happens, all the guys he served with agree to go to their closest Irish pub and, at 7pm, toast the fallen. Jay realizes he’s not going to make it and sits dejected in the garage, opening up and telling Phil.

It’s a nice moment that Phil and Jay normally don’t get to share, but it largely succeeds emotionally because of the storytelling. When Phil is feeling down because he can’t solve all the problems in the house like a “real man,” Gloria builds his confidence back up by saying that his gift is making people feel comfortable around him, allowing them to open up to him and confide in him. So when Jay tells Phil why he’s so eager to leave the house, it’s built on real character progression. Plus, there’s the typical Modern Family charm: Phil pours Jay a shot and places a four-leaf clover decoration next to his cup. As Phil is about to head back inside, Jay calls him back, gets him a glass, and has a drink with him. It’s a moment that’s been seasons in the making, and it’s earned, unlike the moment Haley and Andy share. Sure, this is a sitcom, but that doesn’t mean that storytelling doesn’t matter.


Stray observations

  • Lots of good visual comedy in this episode, from Cam’s parasol being sucked out the door of the bus, to the door closing and bed opening when Manny and Claire go into Joe’s room.
  • Another nice touch: Claire grabbing one of the wine glasses Haley had put out for her and Andy on her way out of the bedroom.
  • Ugh, Ashley W.
  • That bit with Mitchell and Ashley W. on the stairs was pretty perfect, followed by Cam’s “is your shirt stapled?”
  • “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. This is my butter-churning arm.”
  • “That is fur!”
  • “I could cut the tension with my machete.”
  • “I’m really ready for this to build into a compliment.”