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

Modern Family: “Election Day”

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Election Day sounds like just the thing to bring our Modern Family gang back from their hiatus, and back together for a classic-style ensemble episode. I’m happy to report that this promising premise isn’t wasted by the creative team and by guest director Bryan Cranston. On the contrary, the asides come with machine-gun pacing, the complications arise naturally from the situation, and when hearts get warmed at the end, there’s nothing saccharine about it. In other words, it’s one of the best episodes of the season.

Claire has mobilized her whole family to bring the Dunphy for City Council campaign home to victory. Alex is organizing the phone bank at home, and while Manny gets results complimenting the people he calls, Gloria and Luke aren’t doing so well. Gloria doesn’t understand why people aren’t just doing what she says, like they usually do (Alex: “They can’t see you”), and Luke figures that it won’t matter if he makes some wild promises (“no taxes for the rest of your life!”), since his mom will just have to break them like every politician does. Phil is going to drive senior citizens to the polls, but he makes the mistake of starting with the family's neighbor, Mr. Kleezak (Philip Baker Hall), who demands stops for glasses, oxygen, and food to eat with his pills (“The Greeks do one thing right, and it’s lamb!”), and never gets to anyone else.

In the most delightful subplot, Mitchell and Cameron have tricked out their Prius with Claire Dunphy paraphernalia and a speaker system off an old taco truck and plan to drive through town broadcasting pro-Dunphy slogans. It’s a win-win, because Mitchell understand Claire’s drive and ambition, and Cameron loves festooning things. But after using the speakers to guilt a litterer into picking up his trash, they can’t stop telling people what to do, whether it’s avoiding bad movies or questioning restaurant slogans. Their PA-fueled megalomania backfires when they start discussing an acquaintance’s doomed engagement while the mic happens to be open, and instead of politicking for Claire, they wind up trying to convince the woman that her fiance isn’t gay. I love the way the mockumentary format really works for this subplot, with the camera whipping around in the back seat of Cam and Mitchell’s car to catch their amplified instructions as well as the bewildered expression of pedestrians obeying their commands. And the twists develop spontaneously, as the possibilities of a car-mounted speaker occur to the couple.

I’m not the biggest fan of funny voices, but the biggest belly laugh of the night for me happens after Claire has her temporary dental work dislodged by the microphone at a radio station and suddenly starts slurring her esses. “Where do you stand on the city’s sewage and sustainability initiative, the so-called SSI?” intones the mellifluous host, and I don’t even need Claire to say anything. That’s comedy. Almost as good is the moment earlier, just before Claire breaks a tooth trying to get a tag off her new suit, when the reporter asking her for a quote expresses relief that he’s finally found a Dunphy voter. “They moved me over from ad sales,” he explains. “We take turns reporting.” It’s the kind of detail that both fleshes out the small-time politics of this race and ratchets up the frustration level of the Dunphy operation that’s trying to take it seriously.

Jay’s only job is to vote for Claire, but he finds it hard to do so because a woman he jilted after his divorce is working the polls. She holds onto Jay’s ballot while putting other voters’ cards in the box, and he tries to explain: “It’s not that you weren’t pretty naked. I’d have run out on Angie Dickinson!” That’s the least successful subplot of the bunch, just because it gets dropped in out of nowhere, but even there, we get the singular joy of watching Sofia Vergara say “I’ve seen you wait 45 minutes for sherbet.”

And all the while, Haley is hiding from her parents the college rejection letters that have been piling up. When she cries in her mother’s arms after Claire loses the election and compares her failure at college admissions to the city council race—“It’s exactly the same, except you tried really hard the whole time and not just at the end”—the moment doesn’t feel like a sitcom contrivance because of what we know about these characters. I don’t expect to have a fuzzier feeling or wear a goofier smile before summer reruns start than the one I got while the whole gang celebrates Haley being wait-listed at her final, last-ditch school.  “My daughter might go to college!” Phil yells, and it really does seem like something to cheer about.

Stray observations:

  • “How could they not sell tacos?” Mitchell wonders when he experiences the behavior-altering power of the speakers.
  • Philip Baker Hall is absolutely adorable in this episode. He wants to vote so that he won’t end up marrying a man, then when Phil points out that gay marriage isn’t mandatory, he retorts, “I’m a good dancer. They’ll come for me!” Later he rejects Claire’s stop sign campaign, claiming that “I didn’t fight in the war so that some politician could tell me where to stop my car!” and when reminded that he doesn’t drive, crows “Until Barack Obama took my license away!”
  • Even the mandatory Cam-likes-the-pretty-boys joke turns out to be a hit, the one about the “dimpled chad situation.” When an episode can pull that off, you know the creative team is firing on all cylinders.
  • “The whole family’s high!  There’s your headline.”