Is Modern Family an overrated show or an underrated one? It probably comes down to whom you're discussing it with, though you'll also likely have to factor in which week you're having the conversation. The show deserves whatever props it gets as a Progressive Social Force, and it's worth pointing out that it would count for less if it weren't a little square around the edges: It's not just a sitcom that casually features two men who love each other and are attempting to raise a child together; it's a mainstream sitcom that casually features two men who love each other and are attempting to raise a child together. I know some people who were enraged that it mopped up the floor with the likes of Community and Parks And Recreation at the most recent Emmys, but if you're really smart enough to love Community and Parks And Recreation, do you really care that much who wins at the Emmys?
Modern Family is the kind of show that, by its very existence, serves to announce that the mock-documentary format for sitcoms, with the characters taking breaks from the action to talk directly to the camera, is no longer a fresh device. That's how the reflection of social change and creative innovation work in popular culture: It's a cause for rejoicing when once-marginalized ideas about how people can live their lives pop up on a show that solidly occupies center ground and has no claim to be startling. That said, as a conventional-minded sitcom that borrows the techniques of shows that are much more imaginative and unusual (and that have the much lower ratings to prove it) Modern Family would be contemptible if it weren't funny. Because it has a lot of talented people working on it, it's often very funny, thus fulfilling its prime directive as a commercial comedy.
Tonight's episode wasn't the show at its best, and it demonstrated just how pointless this skillfully polished comedy projectile can feel when it really loses its direction in the course of an episode and spends the bulk of half an hour aimlessly wandering the parking lot. It also demonstrated just how second-hand it can feel when it fails to put its stamp on the ideas it's borrowed from feistier shows. Actually, part of this was probably just one of those fluky things. I doubt that, when Modern Family decided to devote its February 29 episode to the kooky idea that some people might have special feelings about Leap Day, anyone knew that, less than a week earlier, 30 Rock would take this same sketchy idea and paint a mural with it.
As soon as Phil began to rhapsodize about how he spends years looking forward to “the gift of 24 extra hours” and Claire chimed in that she “can be spontaneous every four years,” the ghost of 30 Rock's “Leap Day" episode hung over the show like a shroud, reducing it to the peculiar, “and then there's….” status occupied by such cultural artifacts as Analyze This (the Mafia-don-gets-therapy movie that came out a couple of months after the premiere of the first season of The Sopranos) and the movie starring Toby Jones as Truman Capote researching In Cold Blood that appeared in theaters a year after the movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote researching In Cold Blood. All perfectly innocent cases of great minds thinking alike, no doubt, but still—what can we in the audience do, except try to do the polite thing and turn away? Especially when the inspiration gap is as vast as it was between 30 Rock's lysergic nightmare vision of New York in thrall to a imaginary (and strangely sinister) holiday and Modern Family's jerry-rigged springboard to some disappointingly half-assed little gags.
The Dunphy story line turns out to be about how Phil's dream Leap Day is demolished when Claire suddenly shifts into an unpredictable state of emotional overload—she is, Luke explains, “monsterating.” She's soon joined in her shrill downward spiral by both Haley and Alex, creating what Phil refers to as “Satan's trifecta.” Grabbing hold of this sensitive tone and running with it, Phil explains to the bewildered Luke that “You never mention the cycle. You tiptoe around it. The woman's actually taking great pains to hide the monster she's become. But if you acknowledge it, just once, the monster appears.” When, inevitably, Phil does acknowledge it, and his wife and daughters advance on him in full babbling froth, he complains that it's like a movie in which Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man all appear, "except it's not awesome."
It should be conceded that this episode was directed by a woman, Gail Mancuso. It should also be mentioned that Mancuso might have experienced a little tinge of deja vu on the set, because she was a longtime director on Roseanne, which once did a justly famous episode in which Roseanne Connor ruined her husband's birthday by suffering an attack of PMS. (The script, which was credited to that upstanding feminist Tom Arnold, got laughs by treating the situation as something out of, yes, a horror movie.) Although I will long treasure a shot of the Dunphy women unwinding at the end of a long day's crazy by hitting an amusement park and enjoying a good game of Whac-A-Mole—they look like the Weird Sisters in Macbeth on their day off—most of this plotline, way too much of which was devoted to the tribulations of the besieged male Phil, felt both crude and stale, a real winning combination. (It's not even the only time in the past month that Modern Family has sincere flattered Roseanne in a way that felt too close for my comfort. A recent episode dealt with Claire's belief that Greg Kinnear, playing a real estate broker Phil is eager to do business with, is hitting on her, a belief that he seems to confirm when he plants a too-passionate kiss on her. The twist—it turns out that Kinnear too-passionately kisses everybody—was highly reminiscent of an episode of Roseanne in which the inappropriate kisser was played, big surprise, by Tom Arnold.)
Most of what was fun about this episode came from Mitchell's efforts to do right for Cam, who is having his 40th birthday—or rather, since Cam is a Leap Day baby, his 10th. Because Modern Family is often at its lamest when it raids the production budget and festoons the screen with silly costumes and outlandish decorating choices, my heart sank when Mitchell confided to the camera that he was planning a big theme party based on The Wizard Of Oz. Luckily, Mitchell has to cancel the party, which as he says is “based on gay cinema's most famous tornado,” when he's reminded that Cam and his family are still suffering from the effects of “the most devastating twister ever to hit Cam's home town.” He tells the camera that he “totally missed the connection.” This beggars credibility, but what do we want, credibility, or a scene with Mitchell forced to distract Cam from noticing that people dressed as witches, scarecrows, and a pigtailed little girl with a bicycle are filing into his house? I realize that this sounds very much like the kind of scene that I just described as often sinking the show, but the camera placement and the underplaying of the extras saves it. It's so perfectly managed that it feels gracefully choreographed even when Mitchell is reduced to literally dancing in the street.
In the end, after some miscommunication involving a party boat captained by John DiMaggio—whose performance here constitutes a daring change of pace, not just because you can see him as well as hear him, but because he manages to get through a whole scene without mentioning his butt—and the stench of a dead whale putrefying out of camera range, Mitchell gets to deliver the episode's closing remarks, about how “Cam's craziness today wasn't about a party; it was about turning 40.” (He then adds, “And once he realized that, everything got much worse.” Leaving aside the fact that the writers failed to show Cam saying or doing anything crazy enough to justify the first two words of that speech—all thing considered, he might be the sanest person on the show tonight—this seems like a remarkably insightful way for a show with an unseen whale carcass to go out.
- The Gloria-and-Jay story line, involving Gloria giving mixed messages about whether she wants him to act like an asshole when she feels insulted or threatened, was too underdeveloped to count as anything but filler. But it did provide an excuse to show John DiMaggio being decked by Sofia Vergara.
- Reacting to the whale's stench, Luke says something that sounds like, “It smells like pukeberry soup had a ceremony in my nose.” Seriously, I rewound the tape three times, and that's the best transcription I can come up with. But even without knowing what the kid said, I did laugh at Manny telling him, “You paint with words.”
- One line that captured the show's sometime ability to capture the way people can be easiest to understand and relate to when they're behaving illogically: Cam howling through his tears, “I don't want to be 40! It isn't fair.”
- Phil's tip-off that his wife and daughters are entering “the cycle comes when the three of them pile in front of the TV and start weeping over that PSA where Sarah MacLachlan croons over footage of lonely, abused dogs and cats. If you have to be menstruating to melt into a puddle over that commercial, my time of the month must be whenever it comes on.