When a sitcom spends most of its marketing time promoting the numerous guest stars set to appear in its next episode, you usually have a pretty good sense of what kind of episode you’re about to get. You can predict that it won’t be too serious, that there won’t really be any storylines that tie in with the rest of the season. More often than not the episodes are built around the guest stars. The motivations and plots of the main characters are warped in order to accommodate for a guest star’s appearance. This is neither an inherently good or bad thing, but rather an observation about how these episodes tend to be structured just a little bit differently.

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Typically, the result is an episode that, for lack of a more exciting and thesaurus-searched word, fine. “Brushes With Celebrity” is fine. It’s an episode that avoids some of the pitfalls this season has fallen into, and yet never quite achieves any of its own standout moments. It’s an episode that feels built to deliver pleasant mediocrity; it’s neither ambitious or inventive, nor reductive and off-putting. “Brushes With Celebrity” is the kind of episode that feels right at home in the ninth season of a sitcom; it sets up a premise, hits the comedic beats it needs to, and then gets out.

The premise, as the title suggests, is the Dunphys and Pritchetts having various run-ins with celebrities. It begins when Phil reveals that he’s showing a house to Chris Martin. He continually calls Martin his hero, which is strange because Martin isn’t a magician—to which Phil would certainly reply with some quip about him creating musical magic or something. With a flower freshly embroidered on his jeans, Phil sets out to sell Chris Martin on the benefits of living with the city at his feet. While Phil does that, Jay has a run-in with Terry Bradshaw, Manny tries to work up the courage to approach a playwright he admires, and Cam and Mitchell do their best to get the attention of the host of a home gardening show in the hopes of being picked for a garden renovation.

Each meeting, of course, goes off the rails. Jay gets a little too buddy-buddy with Bradshaw over lunch, making the mistake of insulting Failure To Launch, which the former NFLer considers some of his best work. Manny, who approaches his hero at the behest of his mother, gets nothing but a harsh bit of celebrity pomposity from the grim playwright. Mitchell and Cam go through all the dramatics possible to earn a spot on “I Beg Your Garden,” only to discover that the show has been cancelled for two years. Then there’s Phil, who mostly gets along with Chris Martin, only to be undone by an inflamed testicle and a trip to the hospital.

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The success of each storyline is really dependent on the guest star. For instance, the story of Jay getting a little too friendly with Bradshaw doesn’t do much for me because Bradshaw isn’t really playing a part. He’s just Terry Bradshaw as a juror. That doesn’t leave much room for any sort of inspired comedy—we’ll get to the surprising delights of Chris Martin in a bit, who also plays himself but in a different way—and instead promotes a heavy reliance on broad-strokes comedy. Jay’s contained plot is just him being an awkward, unrelenting fanboy with Bradshaw. He even gleefully shows off the restraining order Bradshaw signs. It’s all too predictable and easy, much like Manny’s encounter with the gruff but also deeply insecure playwright, whereas the other celebrity encounters use their guest stars in much more interesting ways.

What’s intriguing about Cam and Mitchell’s attempts to get on a home gardening reality show is how Modern Family uses it to once again pick away at their marriage. The idea that Cam and Mitchell might not be totally happy with each other has been a running theme of the season, though it certainly hasn’t been at the forefront of every episode. Rather, it’s been introduced in fits and spurts, much the way cracks in a relationship develop, especially when you’re on the outside looking in. Once you see one bit of friction, the others start to clarify.

In this instance, Cam and Mitchell understand that the key to getting on the show is by presenting themselves as embroiled in conflict. It’d be funny enough to let them just run with that gag only to get serious later on, but “Brushes With Celebrity” does something different: it gives Cam and Mitchell a single moment of acknowledgement before they dive into their charade. When they come up with the idea of getting into a fight in front of the TV show host, Cam says it’ll be perfect because they’re always bickering, to which Mitchell replies, “yes, and sometimes it reveals something deeper, but sometimes it doesn’t.” It’s a small moment that hints at a struggle that’s been brewing all season, and one that’s balanced out by Mitchell’s touching reasons for liking rustic barn board in his house.

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Phil’s storyline might not be as deep, but it’s nonetheless fun because Chris Martin proves to be game for the comedic bits. He turns in a hilarious performance as a presumably exaggerated version of himself. He compliments Phil’s jeans, worries that he’s losing touch with who he truly is, and decides that he can get back to his roots so long as he has “three chords, a mattress, and my chef.” It’s a truly delightful turn that fits in with the absurdity of a testicle-based storyline. From now until the end of time, I will have the image of Chris Martin putting an ice pack on Ty Burrell’s balls burned into my brain. Any episode that can do that can’t be half bad.


Stray observations

  • Luke’s advice for Claire, who’s struggling with her new book club: “Just say it holds a mirror up to society.”
  • Manny’s hero is a solitary dude: “He writes in a hollowed out tree somewhere in Montana.”
  • After learning that Phil embroidered his own jeans, Chris Martin has a piece of fashion advice: “Get a long sleeve shirt, put it under a t-shirt, and it lets everyone know you own multiple shirts.”
  • “All men break the same.”
  • Cam considers reclaimed wood to be “an insulting appropriation of barn culture.”

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