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

Modern Family: "See You Next Fall"

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There’s a little bit of everything you love about Modern Family in the penultimate episode of its second season—and probably a little bit of everything you don’t care so much about, either. “See You Next Fall” (oh, the hubris of that title, rubbing its assured third season in the face of all the ABC shows about to get the ax!) is basically a clip reel of the show’s recurring tropes. Claire freaks out, Phil loses control, Haley and Alex hate each other, Luke moves things with his mind, Cam is sensitive, Mitchell defends being insensitive, Jay worries about being too old, Gloria wears clingy low-cut tops. And the pratfalls! The only complaints you can lodge against the episode in terms of equity are its distinct lack of Manny drinking fancy coffee or Lily wearing Carmen Miranda hats.

And yet, for all such a list makes “See You Next Year” seem like a hasty, shallow, even lazy way to wind down the season, the episode doesn’t feel like a recycle job. Instead, it comes off as a mission statement. The situation comedy is about stock character traits and finding the absurdity in everyday circumstances, the creative team seems to be saying. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a great sitcom. You can do something much bolder—make 60-year-old ideas feel like they were just thought up yesterday. We’re going to make you laugh with the oldest tricks in the book.

As has been the case with the best episodes of the series, the comic effect isn’t diluted but magnified by the large ensemble. Consider the scene where the families are meeting at Jay and Gloria’s house for lemonade and snacks before heading out to Alex’s middle school graduation ceremony. When Mitchell describes Cam’s splashdown in Lily’s wading pool—“and then the pool popped!”—the rest of the cast pipes up with expressions of concern in rapid-fire succession, each line amplifying Mitchell’s disbelief that no one finds it funny. When Jay takes inadvertently reveals his unsettling droopy-eye, then reverse-confesses the cause (Mitchell: “You look like a Botox victim gone horribly wrong”; Jay, pointedly: “No”; everyone: “You did!”), the whole crowd piles on in one of the show’s typically rapid shifts of focus. “Why does everyone always assume I’m having a stroke?” Jay complains, and the responses are immediate and definitive: “age,” “diet,” “you forgot to bring me bread.”

By adding a Phil-esque twist to Claire’s graduation anxiety, the writers give us additional layers for what has become a MF staple. Since Phil has a trip to Vegas planned with his fellow male college cheerleaders, he has to accelerate Claire’s meltdown, so he swoops in and rescues her before his plane leaves.  This leads to Phil rushing to Claire’s side any time at every opportunity—like when she’s talking about how cute the Pritchett’s new dog is—and saying solicitously, “Remember when you used to hold Alex like that and you wanted to eat her face?” When Claire finally explains to Phil that she’s right to be afraid, because middle-school graduation is precisely when Haley stopped being a sweet loving girl excited whenever her daddy came home and started being a sullen teenager who hates her mom, Phil completely loses momentum on his scheme. “I don’t want to go to Vegas anymore,” he moans. “I just want to hug them and embarrass them in front of their friends.”

And if you come to MF for the Cam Show, “See You Next Fall” made up for a string of Cam-Show-free episodes by having him flop hilariously in that wading pool, then try to retain his dignity after walking first into a glass patio door and then through the screen behind it. Top that off with his anguished outburst to Jay after the Botox revelation (“What were you thinking? You’re a veteran!”) and his “McGayver” recipe for fixing Jay’s stuck gate: “I just need some paper clip, some olive oil, and a ribbon… The paper clip is to complete the circuit, the oil to lubricate the hinges, and the ribbon is for Lily, her hair has been driving me crazy.” Now that’s appointment viewing.

At the end, Alex gets a standing ovation for following Haley’s advice, rather than giving her truth-telling anti-popular-kids screed—“All you have to do is take a song and say it, like don’t stop believing or get this party started,” Haley tells her, then Alex mutters “Seriously?” after receiving the crowd’s whoops of approval—and starts her bittersweet journey toward teenagerdom with a post-graduation party invitation. Phil uses his high school Spanish oration skills (“It was kind of a grande deal, I was up against an actual Puerto Rican”), unnecessarily as it turns out, to commandeer a ride in the back of a pickup truck to the graduation site, where he and Claire roll all the way down a steep hill, causing Cam to join the Pritchett clan’s propensity to laugh of people falling down. And Cam gets to tell us how to relax and enjoy the grand tradition of the situation comedy while retaining our credibility as hip intellectuals: “It’s the juxtaposition of absurdist comedy against the backdrop of a formal setting. Not a big-boned man falling into a pool.”

Stray observations:

  • You don’t want to disappoint your college cheerleading squad. “They will mock you with a hurtful, rhythmic taunt.”
  • I’d like to thank Jay for skewering that stupid iRenew thing, which I have to take pains to explain to my kids is fakey-fake-fake every time the commercial comes on: “I haven’t felt this dumb since I shelled out $30 for that bracelet that’s supposed to give you better balance.” The problem with this advertising, as Noel states so well in this essay about cigarette commercials, is that it succeeds in establishing the product as a viable item in a world where rational consumers buy things, not in the shady underground of snake-oil salesmen and gullible marks where it belongs.
  • So wonderfully stuffed with comedy was this episode that I didn’t even have space above to get into the whole gate-being-stuck subplot, which led directly to Claire screaming “As a gate owner, Dad, you have a certain responsibility!” Gloria’s plan to throw the tandem recumbent over the gate as much to get rid of it as to solve the problem, Phil standing straight “like a pencil” and waiting for someone to fling him over cheerleader-style, and the chain breaking on the bike as Phil veers into an alley shortcut: “It doesn’t matter,” Claire yells, and Phil responds, “It matters a little!”
  • “Weighing in at —” “Dad!” “—a healthy weight for a girl her age…”
  • “So no bread?”