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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: “Schooled”/“Snip”

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Modern Family only barely managed to get premièred before the presidential debate knocked it off the air last week, so here we are doubling up to get back on track. The first of these two episodes was so strong that I felt certain the second would be a letdown. Yet back-to-back, these two half-hours make a strong case that the series has moved itself to a place that can reinvigorate both its comedic and sentimental sides.
In “Schooled,” Haley heads to college, Lily to kindergarten, and Jay and Gloria to birthing classes. I really like the way all three storylines utilize familiar character tropes, but play them off against fresh foils. Phil is so enthused about taking Haley to college that he’s made T-shirts with a picture of Haley being swung in her parents’ arms as a girl, with the legend “Haley’s Moving Company.” Claire, ever realistic about what girls get up to in college, has packed her a box full of condoms. When Phil mistakes Haley’s roommate for Claire and squeezes her behind in an unbelievably inappropriate fashion, then knocks the box full of condoms onto the floor in front of the roommate’s father, Haley wants them out of her college life immediately, despite the furniture rearranging and celebratory dinner that were in the plans. But being left alone in the dorm is a sobering experience, and by the end of the episode, Haley’s thanking her dad for the book of “Phil’s-osophy” (“If you get pulled over for speeding, tell the policeman that your spouse has diarrhea”) and wearing the T-shirt she was so embarrassed by earlier.
On her first day of kindergarten, Lily has her hair pulled by a classmate whom Cam then threatens, leading to a conference with the boy’s lesbian parents in the principal’s office. They’re sentenced to a playdate to work out their issues, and while Mitch makes nice with the brunette (Michaela Watkins of SNL and The New Adventures Of Old Christine), Cam and the blonde (Wendi McLendon-Covey of Reno 911 and Bridesmaids) can’t stop sniping at each other (“I look forward to your frittata,” she sneers when the playdate is announced; “Why, are you visiting us in 2008?” Cam retorts). In the confessional, Mitch and Cam explain that gay men and lesbians have nothing in common, unlike gay men and straight men (both men) and gay men and straight women (both attracted to men), but when Lily and the boy lock themselves in Lily’s room because they don’t want to be separated (“I love him,” Lily yells; “You love the idea of him,” Cam corrects her), the parents find mutual understanding of the way protecting their kids makes them act crazily.
Jay and Gloria’s storyline is the slightest of the three, but it’s still got plenty of laughs in the way that the couple’s blasé approach to baby care contrasts with the premise of the class (and by the end, with Manny’s anxiety that he’ll be the only one fretting over the baby’s safety). When the instructor demonstrates swaddling—”like a burrito,” she concludes—Gloria immediately slams down her African-American baby-doll on the table: “Done! I win!” She explains that the nursemaid Lupé who took care of her as a child was actually a goat (much to Jay’s surprise), and Jay opines that babies are easy: “When they’re hungry, feed ’em; when they’re teething, give ’em Scotch.”
What makes this episode hum along so satisfyingly are all the little things. Haley and Alex saying good-bye to each other: “Don’t dork up our room,” Haley admonishes; “Don’t slut up your college,” Alex responds. Luke dons a Terminator mask for the parting hugs with his sister, but not to hide his emotions, he insists: “Half my face was burned off in an industrial accident, and the mask is hiding the servos that control my mouth.” “Awwwww!” his parents coo in unison. Of course, there are the many readings from “Phil’s-osophy,” of which by far my favorite is: “Marry someone who looks sexy while disappointed.” But the sweet ending, with Haley calling her parents and making them tear up in the car, earns its emotions and effortlessly provides the extra oomph of family feeling that this show sometimes can try far too hard to engineer.
The following episode, “Snip,” shows that the ending was no sitcom fluke, to be forgotten now that Haley’s been shuffled off the main stage. Cleverly but quite realistically, the show brings Haley back into the Dunphy home via extended video chats; I could tell this was going to work beautifully when she participated in a typically chaotic three-way yelling match in the kitchen through the computer screen without missing a beat. “Five more years,” Claire whispers to herself, referring to the five-year plan that she and Phil have put into effect to count down to when Luke leaves the house (“to college… or somewhere”) and they finally have their lives back to themselves. The first step is to get Phil a vasectomy so that there won’t be any little accidents like what happened to Gloria and Jay; Phil believes he’ll get ice cream afterward (or before, why the hell not?), but gets cold feet in the waiting room with Jay filling out the forms. He makes a run for  freedom when a moaning man walks gingerly out of the back in obvious pain. (“What you could really use is a recovery room,” Jay advises the receptionist.) Jay assures Phil that no one will think him less of a man because he’s been fixed, even though the source of Phil’s fear is the potential pain of minor outpatient surgery. “Wait, people think that? That you’re less of a man? That never occurred to me,” Phil says, sitting down on a bench featuring his face and the advertising message “Not just a realtor, a man who cares” and turning it into “Not a real man.”
Meanwhile, Mitch wants Cam to go back to work now that Lily is in school. This is a plotline that can easily be shrill and stereotyped, but all the little touches just work like gangbusters. Mitch pretends to be working hard in his cubicle when Cam calls by making office supply noises (even though he’s only been playing trash can basketball on his iPad); then when it turns out Cam is actually right at his door, Mitch efficiently cuts a Post-It note in half, staples the halves together, and deposits it firmly in his inbox. After Mitch’s scheme to get him a part-time job at Longine’s menswear store falls flat, he pursues Cam around the apartment explaining and apologizing. Cam places an oblong throw pillow vertically on the chair as he passes, Mitch moves it to the horizontal on his next orbit, Cam replaces it, and then Mitch just eyes it with longing resignation as he sweeps by. Cam produces a packed suitcase for Mitch to use in a dramatic exit, then directs him to various pockets for tissues and chocolate as they reconcile (“Remind me to replace this,” says Cam as he unwraps the Toblerone that he previously banished from the house as part of a new healthy regimen).
Once again, Gloria and Manny get the short end of the story stick. She refuses to stop wearing her non-maternity clothes even though she’s six months pregnant, ha! Jay gets in some good lines trying out Jaws jokes on the ultrasound technician: “I saw it, but I don’t remember a scene with a hubcap in a pregnant woman,” she puzzles. Manny. though, drops an important clue: He’s upset because his music teacher Mr. Namaguchi has suddenly left the school, right when Manny had him nicely buttered up to get the lead role in Oliver!.  At the end of the episode, Cam decides to go back to teaching music, and we see him erasing Mr. Namaguchi’s name from the music-room board.
And that’s not the only satisfying conclusion to which “Snip” finds its way. While Phil is trying to psych himself up to go under the knife, Claire is dealing with her troublesome children. Luke forgets his science project and rigs his locker to spray goo all over Claire when she tries to leave it for him; Alex has suddenly acquired a goth friend and skips school so they can shave parts of each other’s heads. “Five more years,” she reminds herself. But then she overhears Haley and Alex talking affectionately about how much they love her nerdiness, even though she’d never let them live it down if she knew they didn’t loathe her. And in a lovely little moment, Luke comes home with his science project and wordlessly hands her a rose. Suddenly, five years doesn’t seem like enough, and Claire lets Phil off the vasectomy hook.
Two episodes showcasing solid construction, excellent timing, and graceful fillips of feeling. Suddenly, Modern Family seems to be brimming with confidence, looking forward to the possibilities of a rearranged cast of characters. I can’t wait to see more.

Stray observations:

  • Phil offers a toast to Haley’s departure for college in the words of that great American (George) Jefferson: “Here I stand a proud black man, knowing that all those hours I put in at the drycleaners…”
  • Cam makes vegetarian spring rolls for the lesbian couple, to which the blonde takes offense because vegetarian lesbians are an offensive stereotype. “I saw it on The L Word; I assume they have consultants,” Cam sniffs.
  • Another good Cam line, during a flashback to the mustachioed days before Lily’s adoption: “She said it could up to take nine months to get a baby, it’s inhuman!”
  • Gloria explains that Lupé scared people away from her window when she was sleeping. “It’s not like the goat brushed my teeth or put me to bed!”
  • More “Phil’s-osophy”: “The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you lower your expectations.” “Older black women make the best iced tea.” “Dance until your feet hurt; sing until your lungs hurt; act until you’re William Hurt.” “When life gives you lemonade, make lemons; life will be all like whaa?