Photo: Ron Tom/ABC (ABC)

Before every single review of Modern Family I log into the ABC press site and find the press photos I want to accompany my piece. As you can probably tell from week to week, the selection is slim, but that’s not really why I’m telling you this. Instead, I want to give you some insight into a specific thing that happens every week. When I click on the gallery for the latest photos, a description of the episode pops up. Obviously those descriptions, perhaps written rather hastily and with little regard for what they convey outside of the bare minimum of plot details, aren’t meant to be an encapsulation of an episode’s quality. But every time I see one, I can’t help but have a reaction. Those reactions don’t influence the reviews, but when you’ve watched nine seasons of a sitcom (and review three of them), you come to understand what the show handles well and what it fumbles.

Logging in this week, the description was as follows: “When Jay overhears Gloria on the phone talking about spanking, he assumes she is frustrated in the bedroom. When he attempts to light the spark again by giving her exactly what she wants, he realizes he might have made a mistake. Meanwhile, now that Mitchell has an amazing new job, he and Cam throw a party to rub it in Cam’s friends’ faces so they can no longer give him ‘the look of pity’.” My immediate reaction was one of hesitation. Two straight weeks of Jay and Gloria misunderstanding each other when it comes to romance and their sex lives? Yet another instance of Cam and Mitchell being petty? Again, after nine seasons, it’s difficult to not have such knee-jerk reactions.

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Thankfully, “Spanks For The Memories”—ugh—is actually a lot of fun. It takes a few simple if outlandish premises and makes them work as extended bits of comedy. As the episode begins, we check in with the various crises: Jay, after mishearing Gloria talk about a lack of intrigue in the bedroom, believes that he needs to spice things up, specifically by spanking Gloria. Mitchell, having finally landed a new prestigious job working for a billionaire, is eager to gloat to his and Cam’s friends, all of whom seem to pity him and his situation. Phil needs help with a bully at this magic shop—I legitimately forgot he had that until this week—and Alex brings her own issues into the mess. Then there’s Claire, who’s eager to get into a magazine, so much so that she parades around in a cocktail dress at Mitchell and Cam’s party.

This is all pretty standard setup for Modern Family, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A big part of the show’s struggles last season was its inability to craft standalone episodes that were, quite simply, funny and engaging. Too often the episodes were trying to cram in more “realistic” plot points, all of which wouldn’t be revisited for weeks at a time. So much of the eighth season felt formless. “Spanks For The Memories” finds the balance that last season couldn’t. It advances some of the season’s overarching stories while also acting as an isolated episode that can get by on the comedy alone. In other words, Cam and Mitchell might be petty for the umpteenth time, but at least the jokes are landing.

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Initially, the storyline involving Phil’s bully, who turns out to be a young woman who owns a board game shop next door, is the most underwhelming. It relies on the usual dynamic of Alex being the adult and Phil being the child. As the story progresses though, there’s a wonderful turn. Alex’s walls come down, and when she lashes out at Phil he immediately understands that it’s about a high-pressure internship she’s been accepted to for the summer. She’s convinced she has to take it because no one turns down such a prestigious opportunity, but Phil tells her that she’s earned a summer to do whatever she wants. She can’t be chasing good grades and resume buffers all the time. That conversation, though brief, is a nice reminder that despite the usual dynamic, Phil has some wisdom to offer underneath all the lunacy, and that Alex is a fallible human with very real issues.

The rest of the episode doesn’t find the same emotional stakes, but it doesn’t really matter. The storylines are constructed in a way that’s satisfying on a comedic level. While Claire’s pursuit of a magazine cover doesn’t ever hit its mark—it feels like a forced bit about Claire needing attention, which is all too familiar—Cam and Mitchell’s party is a good bit of comedic chaos. From the running gag about a bowl full of phones suggesting something sexual, to the revelation that Cam locks his loved ones in the bathroom when he needs them to cool down, the whole story moves along at a clip that doesn’t let up.

Even Jay and Gloria’s misguided attempts at spicing up their love life has a certain charm to it. Much like Phil and Alex’s story, there’s a lot of sluggishness and predictability to sit through before getting to the good stuff. Once Jay and Gloria have sorted out their misunderstanding though, they get down to the business of mixing things up in the bedroom in the way they want to. Look, that’s not the most exciting, revelatory moment, but it is one that treats Jay and Gloria like an actual married couple. That’s a remarkable thing in and of itself. Much like that story, “Spanks For The Memories” isn’t the most exciting episode, but it’s the kind of solid, entertaining half hour that could be the norm for Modern Family with just a little bit more ingenuity applied each and every week.

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Stray observations

  • I love Joe waking up in the middle of the night to Jay eating: “Is there a meal I don’t know about?”
  • Phil followed NWA on their summer tour during is junior year: “Nebraskans With Accordions.”
  • Jay is so old that he remembers when L.A. Woman was “the back page of L.A. Man.”
  • Alex’s first words: “Sorry it took me so long to walk.”
  • Cam just walking away from Mitchell as he realizes the doorknob trick is a great physical beat. 

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