Ah, the hour-long sitcom episode that is really two separate episodes smushed together without regard for administrative order nor DVR convenience. You old bitch, we meet again! I kind of feel like saying the same about Modern Family, as it returns for Season 5. There is never a time of year when less general goodwill is being afforded to Modern Family than the week after the Emmys. After four consecutive years of winning the same Outstanding Comedy Series award for what many (including your reviewer) would say is the same show, week-in, week-out, there is almost nothing exciting about the prospect of more ModFam. Not that it's bad. This isn't a bad show! It's often quite a good show! But by its nature, it's a show that shows you its cards every week, and every week it's the same hand: two-pairs, Jacks and eights. That hand is a winner a good number of times, but it's almost never exciting. Still, if this is the median level of sitcom quality on American television in 2013 — and I'm saying that it is, with almost nothing to back up such a claim, so deal with it — that's a pretty high-quality median. And this week's premiere episodes have the show in fairly good form heading into the new season.
I wonder how intentional the juxtaposition between both episodes was. "Suddenly, Last Summer" is the classic Summer Vacation Episode that can either happen at the beginning or end of a season and kind of exists somewhere out of time. Claire, Phil, and Jay are all very much looking forward to unloading their kids for large chunks of the summer and nabbing some precious alone time. Claire in particular shows an obsessive gift for moving around the summer schedule to free up seven blissfully kid-free days for her and Phil. Then, mere minutes later with "First Days," we've fast-forwarded to the first day of school, and all of a sudden, the parents (okay, Phil and Gloria, mostly) are fretting about losing their connection with their children as they get older. None of these storylines contradict each other, and in fact they illustrate the rich tapestry of the ambivalence of family life quite well. I just wouldn't put much faith in the idea that the contrast was intentional.
Maybe it's the time I spent away from the show, but the heartwarming moments that tie "Suddenly, Last Summer" all very much worked for me. The big-ticket storyline is that Mitchell and Cam, having just learned of the Supreme Court striking down DOMA, are separately trying to plan the perfect marriage proposal to each other. The show pairs each of them up with an Other — Cam gets Gloria; Mitch gets Claire — but smartly allows each guy to take the reins himself. Claire is pretty funny in devising macabre scenarios to best throw Cam off before springing the proposal on him, but I'm glad we got to see both Mitch and Cam retain as much agency as possible in this storyline. Too often on this show, their acerbic squabbles outweigh their sweet moments, and they feel like the least loving pair on the show. That they would ultimately end up falling ass-backwards into a more low-key proposal was very predictable, but the execution — both men on one knee, changing a tire by the side of the road, connected deeply enough to not even need to ask the question out loud — was flawless and genuinely affecting. I'm not saying I'm particularly relishing the prospect of a season's worth of double-barrel Groomzilla storylines, but we're off to a very good start nonetheless.
Even better was the way the Mitch/Cam proposal butterflied out into very nice moments for Claire/Phil and Jay/Gloria. As always, Jay's epiphany (this time about how much he will miss Manny while the kid's in Colombia all summer) seemed to come out of the clear blue sky, but I liked his no-nonsense explanation to Gloria about how his proposal to her was originally supposed to go. And Ty Burrell did a lot with the scene where Phil and Claire set up the candles in the living room, revealing himself as something of a master of ambience and flourish. A good example of Claire and Phil working as a team and still learning about each other as they go along.
"First Days" is less heartwarming, by design, but it pairs up the characters interestingly enough that it works. Phil and Gloria end up stumbling into a commercial shoot, where they're asked to appear as extras. Again, we can see where this is going a from a mile away. Asking Gloria to be an unobtrusive background player in any scenario is doomed to failure, and Phil never met a scenario he couldn't overthink; so of course she's going to end up pantomiming a telenovela, and he's going to create elaborate back-story for his "character." It works, though, as they find a way to bring the story back to how they both feel stung by Luke and Manny growing up and apart from them. And it's always nice to have a Phil/Gloria plot that isn't all about him being bamboozled by her beauty.
The Cam and Alex pairing is more promise than execution — he's subbing at her school, but he doesn't know history very well; his flair for the dramatic clashes with Alex needed to excel in this, her pivotal Junior year — but it does lead to Cam getting a job as the school's gym teacher and football coach. I love when Cam indulges in his ex-jock side. It somehow never feels condescending, and as a sportsy gay of some heft, I personally enjoy the representation on a sheer demographic level.
Claire/Jay is sitcommy as heck. After a summer spent reviewing early Friends, I can pick out a musty "Claire is having time relating to her new co-workers" storyline a mile away. As for Mitchell and Haley and Justin Kirk, can I say that I'm not as creeped out by Kirk heavily flirting with her than I expected to be? And in fact, I kind of like the inter-office chemistry going on with all three of them? Worth looking into as the season moves along.
- I'm not Donna Bowman. I'm never going to be Donna Bowman. I can only be me! CAN'T YOU ACCEPT THAT?? (But seriously, thanks to Donna for the hand-off.)
- Great to see Emily Spivey (Up All Night) and Megan Ganz's (Community) names in the credits as producers. Feels like the show is assembling an all-star team to keep things fresh. I approve.
- Having the sappy monologue at the end of "First Days" double as Cam's inspirational speech to his Freshmen Football team was another nice effort to give us the usual formula in a different shade.
- Phil in the cutoffs. Did he tell you he's back to the cutoffs again? (Seriously, at any given time, Phil is a good 18-22% Tobias Funke, so that works.)
- Manny's Colombian cousin "Malaria" and her daughter "Rubella," who might have diphtheria. That's a good piece of business.
- Mitchell and Cam building a stray "I don't know much about history" sentence into a brief musical aside: another good piece of business.
- Phil playing Haley and Alex's insecurities about becoming the other one against each other was both fun and the smartest Phil's been in years.
- Two steps forward: both Manny and Mitchell take a moment to remind characters that "gay" marriage is just, you know, marriage. One step back: "Sometimes I forget to factor in the Asian."
- "Here's Henry Winkler to tell us more."