The gall this show has — to title the episode “Earthquake,” to have the characters spend half their time talking about earthquakes, and not to have an actual earthquake?!
Just kidding, folks. Coming off of last week’s embarrassing lapse of attention, you can bet I kept an eagle eye on every frame of Modern Family tonight. But the stakes are higher than my personal credibility. This week’s merely solid half-hour of entertainment is not going to silence the anti-MF backlash that’s been building since the show got showered with Emmys just before the start of the season. Its typically sharp observations come packaged in a fairly standard sitcom format, and that’s reason enough for people to decide it’s nothing special.
I don’t think “Earthquake” is going to shake up that conventional wisdom. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) And it’s nowhere near the best this show can do in terms of humor, sentiment, or comic structure. But I’ve come to enjoy this show even when it’s not being as innovative as the other shows that get me jazzed, like Community or 30 Rock. I like spending time with these characters; I find them delightful. And as long as the writing and the direction doesn’t completely let them down, Modern Family is going to have a hard time disappointing me utterly.
Is it possible that “Earthquake” was inspired by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, in which an earthquake unites a set of disparate LA characters for a moment in time? Or maybe it was just an obvious plot mechanism for a show that has to connect three households each week somehow. For Gloria, the temblor is a sign of God’s displeasure at Jay skipping church to go golfing. To be fair, Jay skips church for just about everything, including, according to Manny, feeling like he was getting a cold that turned out not to be a cold. (“Because I babied it,” Jay points out.) And of course, if Jay gets away with it, Manny’s going to give church-skipping a try. “I like what Jay said about God being in nature,” he explains. Sure, who wouldn’t?
When the door gets stuck post-quake, Claire gets trapped in a bathroom with a plumber she’s called in to fix the tub — a betrayal of Phil’s handyman credentials that already has him on the defensive. Then when he comes downstairs to find out that the cabinet he had failed to anchor to the wall (“it finally reached the point where I had to roll up my sleeves and tell her I did it”) fell over and barely missed Luke, Claire’s absence seems like an opportunity to rewind the clock and secure the item of furniture so Phil can be the hero who saved the kids from crushing injuries.
And Mitchell sees the quake as a ready-made excuse to beg off from the Oscar Wilde and Crazy brunch being thrown by Pepper Salzman (Nathan Lane), an increasingly elaborate costumed affair that has made Cam’s decision to purchase rather than rent a silk cape seem eminently practical. Tired of being the one always lying to get out of social obligations, though, he forces Cam to be the bad guy this time, and Cam overdoes it so badly that Pepper rushes over to be of assistance in their time of need. Cam can’t stop himself from coming clean about their reasons for not coming to the party — they just didn’t want to — and Pepper breaks down because, as it turned out, nobody else showed up either. “For fifteen years I have killed myself setting a community standard with my fanciful theme brunches, mounted at considerable personal expense,” he moans.
Ultimately Cam throws the ball back to Mitchell to explain the “real reason” they didn’t come to the party (“I’m a mob wife,” he acknoweldges to the camera), and what Mitchell comes up with is that Cameron still has feelings for Pepper, whom he in fact dated one time. (“It was the nineties, we’d just lost Princess Di,” Cameron explains. And then, with Mitchelll mouthing along, “I was at sea.”) Ultimately, Phil convinces Alex to lie about his earthquake-related heroism to Claire, a service she had previously offered to provide to Haley (who wanted to skip out on SAT studying and go to a party) for the same price she exacts from her dad: a trip to the Museum of Tolerance. And ultimately, Manny learns that Jay isn’t as sure about the non-existence of hell — because his whole story of the afterlife is pretty shaky — and heads back to church while his stepdad happily goes back to the links, this time minus the unanswerable questions.
The earthquake turns out to be not the moment of truth, but the moment of lies that make living together bearable. Pretty nifty trick for an episode that was supposed to be about seismic instability.
- What I found especially endearing about this episode is the sincerity of the truth-telling on display. Alex explains to Haley her lack of concern about having a social life with “You’re never alone when you have books.” Manny expresses fear about a heaven that includes bad people, even if walled off into a separate area (surrounded by fire, Jay explains), because sometimes people get sent to the wrong place: “I was put in a girl’s health class one time and had to watch a very disturbing movie.” Phil confesses to the camera that he wasn’t actually trying to get Claire out of the bathroom: “I wasn’t pushing. I was actually pulling a little.”
- Phil finally fixed the step, and demonstrates by dancing up and down on it “like Shirley Temple and that black guy in that movie.” “Bill Bojangles Robinson,” supplies the multi-talented plumber. “Bill Bojangles Robinson, I said it first!” yells the desperate Phil. Naturally, the earthquake unhinges the step again, a circumstance that Phil deals with after his first fall by swinging over that riser braced on the handrails in a little moment of exuberance.
- Lies don’t get any sweeter than Luke’s version of why he ran into the wall and hurt his head: “I got scared because the cabinet didn’t fall down.”
- “Some things can’t be forgotten. Do you know what menstruation is? Because I do!”
- “I brought you some soda, but I couldn’t find any straws, so you’ll have to drink it like cats.”