A common theme in some of these Modern Family reviews, at least in the last few seasons, is how the show has struggled to deal with the kids growing up. As Alex, Haley, Luke, and Manny have aged, the show hasn’t always found compelling ways to deal with what that means to them and the rest of the family. Sure, there have been the typical “growing up” episodes, hitting the plot points of going off to college, getting a first job, or dating a weatherman twice your age—okay, that last one might not be so typical. What’s been surprisingly absent in all of this though is some sort of sex-centric episode. I’m not about to say I’ve been itching for Modern Family to dig into the budding sexuality of its younger characters, but considering how many sitcoms do eventually broach the subject, and usually on numerous occasion, it’s surprising that Modern Family hasn’t in any substantial way.
Considering the nature of this week’s episode, “Sex, Lies & Kickball,” I’m regretting ever thinking that sex is something the show could broach without making it painful to watch. Now, only one of this week’s storylines is explicitly about sex, so there’s plenty of other stuff going on, but I have a feeling that the deeply strange story of Claire and Alex going to war over what’s sexually appropriate in the Dunphy household is going to be haunting me for some time.
Let’s save the sex talk for a little bit later though and deal with the rest of the episode first. While Claire and Alex’s storyline is the worst of the week, I can’t say there’s much elsewhere to latch on to. The episode begins with Jay seeing that his best friend Shorty, who took off for Costa Rica four years ago, is suddenly back in town. He invites Shorty to stay with him and Gloria while he’s in town with the express purpose of catching up with his best friend. Things don’t go as planned though, as Shorty spends all of his time with Gloria, who’s using him as a replacement for Manny, making him the same meals and taking him to the same places in town.
There’s certainly something useful in this story; having Gloria immediately substitute Manny feels like a natural choice for that character. She was always going to struggle with Manny leaving the house, and this is as good a story as any to convey how she’s coping. What’s strange though is where the episode derives its comedy. So much of the story is either about how clingy Gloria is or, even worse, that Jay’s too close with Shorty. The central running gag of the story is that Jay uses the term “best friend” and Gloria thinks it’s weird because he’s a grown man. Why is that funny? Why can’t a grown man have a best friend? It’s such a strange choice to be a source of comedy, and it ruins what could otherwise be a decent exploration of Gloria’s feelings about Mannyleaving the house and becoming more independent.
There’s a little more to love in the story of Mitchell and Cam inserting themselves where they’re not wanted. When they babysit for Pepper and his husband and discover that their adopted child acts exactly like them, meaning he’s a snobby grown up in a child’s body, they feel they have a duty to speak up and offer some parental advice, especially after Lily confirms that Lionel is jealous of her life. The mix of personal intrusion, slapstick comedy, and the reveal that Lionel is in fact just a snobby little dude, makes this storyline the kind of lighthearted, low-stakes comedy that’s easy to enjoy. There’s no substantial character insight or any sort of plot progression based on previous episodes, but it’s a self-contained bit of comedy that works. Plus, Cam and Mitchell are on the same page for once!
Then there’s Claire and Alex, who are both pushing each other’s buttons and boundaries while trying to navigate how their mother-daughter dynamic has changed. Doesn’t that sound like a pretty great area of their relationship to explore? After all, Alex is thriving at college (as we learned two weeks ago), and she’s in a committed, seemingly healthy relationship. There’s plenty of opportunity there to explore the changing nature of their relationship, and yet Modern Family chooses to do it in the weirdest way possible, by having Alex use Phil and Claire’s erotic paint kit in order to challenge her mother’s refusal to see her as an adult.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with Modern Family talking about sex, and certainly the idea of a boyfriend sleeping over at the Dunphy house—a boyfriend that doesn’t belong to Haley, of course—boasts some intriguing possibilities. “Sex, Lies & Kickball” never really shoots for any sort of meaningful conversation though. Instead, Alex and Ben use the erotic paint kit and leave the finished product as a gift for Claire, and then she one-ups them by hanging it above the dinner table. It’s all too weird, even after the show walks some of it back and Alex admits that her and Ben didn’t actually use the kit. I think the problem here is that there’s no sense of what this story is supposed to be. It’s not a significant look at the mother-daughter relationship, it’s not a useful exploration of sexual boundaries, and it never hits the mark as cringe comedy. Add in the episode tag, where Manny is okay with Gloria showing up at his dorm in the middle of the night because it leads to a fellow student thinking he’s having sex, and you see that the comedy part is missing and all that’s left is the cringe, and way too much of it.
- Jay is missing Manny a little less than Gloria: “You call him. I don’t care what he’s doing.”
- “This. This is when you sound racist.”
- Phil wants to paint Claire gold like an Oscar: “So many people to thank,” he says seductively.
- When Cam and Mitchell wonder why Lily didn’t speak up earlier about Lionel, she delivers the perfect barb to her parents: “You guys don’t leave a lot of space to jump into your conversations.”
- Pepper: “How many scenes does kickball have?”