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

Modern Family: "Bixby's Back"

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There should be one obligatory holiday episode for a family sitcom, and that’s a Christmas episode. (Or, you know, whatever holiday-season holiday the family in question would celebrate.) My point is, I don’t need a Halloween episode, or a St. Patrick’s Day episode, or even a Thanksgiving episode. And I certainly don’t need a Valentine’s Day episode.

This is not to say that a Valentine’s Day show can’t be good; it’s just that I don’t think the producers ought to feel any obligation to acknowledge the day. Frankly, I think you’re in the hole to begin when you’re starting with a Valentine’s Day premise—there’s just not a ton of layers to work with. It’s Valentine’s Day, cards, chocolate, candlelight, clichés. Do it if you have a great idea. Last year, Modern Family had a great idea, and the Valentine’s Day episode was brilliant. This year, it felt like the show was doing Valentine’s Day out of obligation, so the episode was fine.

As the title makes clear, the whole half hour was an excuse to bring back Clive Bixby, world’s unsexiest alter ego. I’m not going to begrudge the writers that pleasure. Bixby rules. The roleplaying is set in motion as Claire and Phil dine at Ibiza. The name of the restaurant is a clever misdirect: This trendy, young-sounding eatery turns out to be THE hotspot for seniors, where they gaze at each other over candlelight and, a bit too improbably, drive their motorized scooters into the actual seating area.

Claire feels old, and she’s not ready for her Valentine’s Day to be this boring. So she steps away, calls Phil on his cell phone, and slips back into her seductress character, “Juliana.” On the other end of the line, “Clive” is a little slow to catch “Juliana’s” drift, but once he does, he’s ready to return to that second life of betrayal and deception: “Baby doll, I been lyin’ to my wife for 16 years.”

The encore performance is doomed to failure, even before Phil grabs the wrong key off the bar and shows up naked in a strange woman’s hotel room. Counterintuitive as it sounds, Phil can’t improvise on short notice. He needs to prepare. More to the point, no matter how much they might like to, Claire and Phil aren’t going to recapture last year’s moment (and neither is Modern Family).

Phil’s game, but he’s panicky, so he focuses on a painstaking recreation of his old character, right down to costume details: Hilariously, he thinks the stick-on nametag is so crucial to the Clive Bixby experience that he runs home to find one he can slap on his lapel. There is a fantastic run of writing during Clive and Juliana’s rendezvous at the bar, as every smooth Clive Bixby utterance stumbles out of Phil’s mouth with just the right amount of awkwardness: “I don’t like to talk about money. But I have exactly ten million dollars.” This is a great scene, but after that, the storyline putters out. We know exactly what’s going to happen when Phil enters the wrong hotel room, and it takes an awfully long time for that moment to actually happen, with no surprises on the way there.


Jay and Gloria’s story likewise boils down to one fun scene surrounded by tame logistical business. Jay wants to surprise Gloria with a lavish dinner prepared in their home, but he has to get her out of the house, so he takes her to Ibiza, where he has “forgotten” to get them a reservation. His scheme: The waiting time at the restaurant will give the caterers time to set up back at his house, and once Gloria is worked into a furor by yet another bungled Valentine’s Day, he’ll take her home to a surprise. Result: “She looks like a big idiot,” Jay predicts with glee.

The machinations are tedious and, like much of the episode, weirdly rote and joke-free. But I loved the payoff, as Gloria double-crosses Jay—she secretly has the dinner moved into the garage so that she can surprise HIM. While Gloria has messed with Jay before, it’s fun to see her beat him at his own game. Every time I’m worried that the writers are going to send Gloria down the road to Ditzville, they give her a triumph like this to remind us why Jay married her. You can’t “win” Valentine’s Day, Jay says, but they both know that’s what he planned to do. She swiped his victory, and he kind of loves it. “Now we know,” she declares to Jay, “you are romantic, and I’m smarter than you. And I bought you a motorcycle.”


For however many weeks running, Cam and Mitchell again have the weakest plotline, at least among the grown-ups. Mitchell’s assistant seems to have a crush on Mitchell. But then it seems that maybe the assistant has a crush on Cam! It’s all very ambiguously indeterminately vague. So Cam and Mitchell spend the rest of the episode in a coy argument over who has a crush on whom, and nothing much happens. They have a trite moment in the car outside the restaurant where they remember they have to treasure each other, and then they go right back to being a little catty, because oh those boys! They are the living end.

The D-plot is Manny nursing his crush on Haley. He hints to her that maybe the right man is “closer than you think!” and then delivers about a thousand variations on that obvious, unfunny line. Maybe the Manny fans among you were just happy to have the character back in the mix. For my part, I didn’t mind seeing his advances thwarted by Dylan, who swoops in to blast a love ballad into the Dunphys’ home from the back of a truck. His warbling appeal to “picture me naked!” is all Haley needs to run back into his arms, which is probably the night’s most honest portrayal of Valentine’s Day.


Stray Observations:

  • “Did I validate you?” “Oh, yes.”
  • “I haven’t been single since I was 9.”
  • I don’t understand those Sprint commercials where they show passive-aggressive jerks who explain their behavior by noting that Sprint has unlimited data and calling and whatever. Why do phone companies love to show their customers being enormous assholes?
  • I could list every single Phil line from the bar scene here, but that seems counterproductive. Just rewatch that scene. It saves the episode.
  • What relation is Manny to Haley? Adoptive half-uncle?