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

Modern Family: "Slow Down Your Neighbors"

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Sometimes it’s the simplest things, the very smallest elements of comedy, that provide sufficient goodwill to carry you through a whole half hour. Tonight it’s Sofia Vergara saying “grab.”

The context is both narrow and broad. In terms of this episode, it’s the explanation for why Gloria never learned to ride a bicycle (and why she never taught Manny). “My mother thought that riding a bike was dangerous,” Gloria explains. “She would say, 'That’s how people grab you!'” And that points to the broader context, a continuing series of gags premised on the dangers of Gloria’s Colombian upbringing. Its appeal here derives from the fact that it’s one of the more gentle, less stereotypical instances of that gag, but mostly from the way Vergara paces the line. She kind of lunges at the end of it, but not in an acting-out-people-grabbing-you way. More in a “here’s how my mom explained it to me” way, with a twinge of defensiveness and embarrassment about how she’s bought into it all these years.

And then later, after Jay has failed at teaching her to ride with his push-’em-off-on-their-own approach, Gloria turns to Luke for instruction. (Phil was her first choice, since she needed “someone gentle, nurturing, like a woman,” but Luke was both available and eager to try his hand at teaching, since his playdate got canceled.) Luke asks her why she’s afraid of riding. “Falling down and getting hurt,” she confesses. “What else?” “… Someone grabbing me.” Here, the defensiveness is gone, replaced by the shame of admitting that we’re still under the sway of childhood fears. Coming from Vergara’s lips, it’s utterly charming. And it’s not the big laugh line. The scene goes on, fortified and built on little line readings like this.

Look more closely, and you’ll see that these building blocks are everywhere. Attention to detail may be one of the factors that makes Modern Family such a solid sitcom specimen. No one in any scene is relegated to furniture, to just an observer or a plot device. Everyone has their reactions that contribute to the scene. Take the Dunphy storyline. Claire is on a mission to get a neighborhood speed demon to slow down (a quest that I can get behind, having shot daggered looks at any number of oblivious drivers blowing through the stop sign in front of our house), and her inspired method is to shame the motorist with signs bearing an image of the car’s license plate and the message “Slow Down Your Neighbors.” (“Slow down, talking to the speeder. Who’s talking to the speeder? Your neighbors,” she explains to no avail.) As she unveils her creation, she asks, “What is the one thing a speeder can’t outrun?” Luke pipes up with several possibilities: “Bullets! A laser! Ooh, I know, a falcon!” All the while, Phil is furrowing his brow in the corner of the room, starting to squirm. Because Claire’s nemesis is his client, a woman whose house he’s competing to list in his quest to top Gil Thorp for salesman of the month. As Luke spouts off his guesses, Phil is already trying to think of a way to dissuade Claire from her righteous quest. And it’s right there in the shot, before he even speaks.

By contrast, the Mitchell and Cam storyline contains an instance of extremely broad (if mostly out of sight of the cameras) comedy that’s almost the opposite of these little moments. Both the men have become fond of Barry (James Marsden), a new neighbor who mooches their hot tub and is studying to be a Reiki master. Cam has a crush on him, and Mitchell has his cynical suspicions allayed when the charming Barry acknowledges that Mitchell doesn’t believe in the negative-energy mumbo jumbo and gives him respect for being true to himself. Mitchell’s well on the way to being a convert after getting one of Barry’s hands-off Reiki treatments, but Cam discovers that Barry is squatting in Lily’s princess castle. Thus, the broad moment: Barry and Cam fight inside the castle as Cam tries to eject him, sticking their heads out of the tiny windows to yell at Mitchell in turn. (The writers love those tiny windows; when Mitchell accidentally built himself into the castle during construction, they used the same gag.)

But aside from that moment, the Mitchell/Cam storyline was constructed out of beautifully crafted basic elements. The revival of long-standing relationship bugaboos (e.g., Mitchell rejects people based on one annoying trait, like But-Yet Rachel who refused to pick one negative conjunction). The competition over who has better judgment (Mitchell tries two apologies for mocking Barry’s Reiki practice before giving Cam the one he wants: “You were right”). And the imbalance introduced in comfortable patterns when a new, charismatic presence is introduced (Barry is an inspired take on the flaky hunk grifter, explaining to Cam “I live in here,” pointing to his chest, then off-handedly, as if it’s a minor detail, “I sleep in there,” gesturing at the castle.)

With all that going for it, “Slow Down Your Neighbors” hardly needed guest star Jami Gertz’s power suits and screeching tires. Really, if you’ve got Luke absent-mindedly taking a drink from his Super Soaker after using it to motivate Gloria onto two wheels, you’ve got everything I’m looking for in a sitcom.

Stray observations:

  • Luke mocks his mother’s good-citizen plan to take down the speeder’s license plate number and give it to the police: “I think we should drag him out of his car and punch him in the stomach until he barfs.”
  • Manny is excited about riding his bike to school so he can join the kids who’ve made it a trend, but Jay is horrified by what he sees on Manny’s bike: training wheels. “Nice ones! Custom made!” Manny declares with pride. “They don’t usually come with bikes this size!”
  • “Here comes the judge,” Cam sighs when Mitchell sneers at Barry’s mystical massage hobby.
  • Laura, the woman with the house, suggests that any woman putting up signs like that around the neighborhood must have a horrible family life. “Or things are so good at home she’s out looking for problems!” Phil sort-of-agrees.
  • Phil grabs Claire’s bullhorn to intone, “Luuuke, I am your father!” “That takes me back to the delivery room,” Claire reminisces.
  • "So I called the florist and order one dozen Mylar balloons. Good luck staying mad, honey!"