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Modern Family: “Fulgencio”

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Modern Family is not the kind of series one would expect to pull off a clever Godfather homage, even when Phil foreshadows the sequence with a Marlon Brando line at the beginning of an episode that ends at a Christening. But in that one-minute sequence that closes out the episode, there are enough laughs to pave over all the below-average material that comes before it. What struck me most is that it abandoned the conventions of the documentary-style sitcom in favor of a heavier homage through editing. It’s something that has happened in most episodes I’ve seen from the fourth season, and it’s a welcome addition to the show’s repertoire. At a certain point, strict adherence to the mockumentary can be a burden, and if it’s sequences like this one that allow Modern Family to break out of that cycle, that’s a good sign.


I have to admit that I’m not a regular Modern Family viewer. I watched the first two seasons, then lost track somewhere in the third, catching up here and there whenever an episode seemed to make a dent. But catching up with season four surprised me at just how funny the show can still be. When it gets me laughing—which is often, or Ty Burrell at basically any moment—I laugh loud and with my whole body. Parks And Recreation and Community are the only other shows that make me react that way involuntarily, so even if it’s not exactly the game-changing documentary-style family sitcom it seemed to be when it debuted, it’s at least a well-oiled machine.

But let’s back up to how this all happens. Gloria’s mother Pilar and sister Sonja are in town to see the baby and attend the christening, which creates drama for Jay and Gloria. Pilar is a stickler for tradition, and wants her new grandson to have the family name Fulgencio, but Jay wants his name to be Joe. That sticking point isn’t the root of the problem, as Jay discovers, much to his dismay, that his mother-in-law simply doesn’t like him. That’s all pretty standard stuff, but Gloria and Sonja have a much more complicated history, which she relates to Claire in a great question-and-non-answer sequence. It’s a nice touch that Gloria didn’t simply get the better life by chance or by looks, but acted evil in order to make it to America, and even to meet Jay, leading to her blessed life that makes her feel so guilty.


It all comes to a head at the christening of course, with Sonja accusing Gloria of stealing her life, huge shouting matches between Colombian accents (though thankfully not as much as the episode logline supposed), and Jay saving the day by talking sense to Pilar and giving in on his son’s name: Fulgencio Joseph Pritchett (“We’re never going to call him that.”). Other than the revelation that Gloria had systematically pushed her sister down in order to raise herself up, it wasn’t anything too substantial. That everything can be smoothed over by time, dresses, and shoes—and that adding that third one could be seen as taking it too far—is a very simplistic way to stopper a plot that was quickly going in a sad direction.

Phil, as is often the case, is dealing with his own crisis, a billboard with his face blocked by balloons in front of a flower shop. With Claire off helping Gloria and Jay at their house, he’s around to try and fix his kids’ various crises, despite the fact that they all want to bring in their enforcer mother instead. Phil fancies himself a problem solver—I always think of that damn step from the first season—and springs into action. It’s basic sitcom logic that he makes each situation worse before bringing it all together in the end. But the way he does it—first by “killing with kindness” in a quick drive-by of each child’s problem, then hatching a master plan for revenge once the florist reneges on a deal, is perfect Phil Dunphy. He proves to himself that he can orchestrate solutions to his children’s problems, but is so committed to the Godfather bit that the final move is for Luke to close the door on Claire a la the film’s final shot, instead of stepping in and taking credit for getting things done as the bad guy.

With such a big cast and the overbearing feeling that every character needs to get an arc, Modern Family can occasionally feel overstuffed, leaving one plot short-changed. This week, it’s Cam and Mitchell, who deal with an increasingly snarky Lily. In order to curb her behavior, they try to reduce their own cutting remarks, which gets them uninvited from a friend’s party when they don’t say anything about his partner’s new perm. Mitchell gets caught in Cam’s little verbal trap to show he thinks Cam is to blame, then Cam gets back with the lamest joke in the episode not involving Gloria’s family, letting Mitchell out of the house with a pair of undies hanging off his pants. It’s not a good bit. Hey look, the gay guy has purple underwear hanging out the back of his pants, isn’t that hilarious? But then the little C-plot ties off when they realize it’s Claire’s snark rubbing off on Lily when she drives her to dance. I like talking Lily, and when Cam and Mitch have to fend her off, it can be funny, but for the smallest plot of the episode, it had too much going on.

Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy has always been my favorite character on Modern Family, but throughout this fourth season, he’s been the standout character he once was in earlier seasons. His pratfalls can be hilarious, but it’s the way he saves himself from those potential failures that really makes him so hilarious and wonderful to watch. Last week, it was a breathless monologue about not letting his daughter date a never-not-sketchy Jason Mantzoukas, and this week it’s letting Luke stay home from the christening and getting Dylan involved to take care of some family business. “Fulgencio” turns out to be an episode that exposes how Gloria and Phil can both tap into their dark sides, for good and evil toward their own families.


Stray observations:

  • Once again, due to SEC basketball coverage, Donna wasn’t able to make the christening this week. But she’ll be back soon; thanks to her for letting me drop in to take a look around.
  • Of all the revenge tactics, the rats in the 60s party was probably the best, especially because it leads so naturally into the severed stuffed zebra head. Luke actually makes a pretty good enforcer, and Dylan a nice getaway driver.