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

Modern Family: "The Help"

Illustration for article titled Modern Family: "The Help"

Nathan Lane as Pepper represents so much of a certain kind of problem I have with Modern Family that I almost felt bad for the show as soon as I saw him, because I knew I wasn't going to react well to whatever the rest of the episode had in store. That the episode also featured Adam DeVine as Gloria's new man-nanny (or, yes, "manny," which in fact did lead to a manny/Manny joke, thanks for asking) made me wonder if this was some kind of intentional theme. I understand that DeVine plays characters who are supposed to be obnoxious jackasses, but maybe he inhabits them a little too comfortably, or maybe there's an inner smarm that proves irrepressible in him. Whatever the reason, his presence plus Lane's put the episode behind an 8-ball, guest-star-wise, and not even poor Fred Willard was going to be able to break through.

So, Pepper. The screaming queen in American popular culture is not something I'm always going to reject out of hand, but your show is going to have to do a very good job of earning the right to play in that particular sandbox, and there's no way that Modern Family has proved itself in that regard. No show with this many hacky premises, both involving their two gay characters and otherwise, is going to be able to sell a character like Lane's as anything but retrograde stereotyping. And yet here he is, showing up at Mitch and Cam's door straight out of Father of the Bride, ready to plan their wedding along with his long-suffering assistant Renaldo. I guess this storyline counts as progress for anybody who was secretly hoping for Martin Short and B.D. Wong's characters' roiling sexual-tension subtext to become text in that movie, but otherwise, we're going through some very familiar motions. Pepper's design aesthetic is incredibly loud/tacky/gay — lots of purples, some top hats, a unicorn — and Mitch and Cam's attempts to nudge him in the right direction lead to Lane shrieking and on the edge of a breakdown, a la The Birdcage (a movie that does manage to earn, if barely, the right to trade in old stereotypes in order to get at a more human and revolutionary truth).

The "twist" comes when it's revealed that Renaldo is actually good at the party-planning stuff, and Mitch and Cam hire him on the side to plan a better wedding. This leads to that old sitcom standby, the surrogate-infidelity plot, where Mitch and Cam's attempts to hide their second wedding planner from their first are played like the actions of a philandering spouse. You might recall Seinfeld did this with barbers. There's one attempt at going next-level with this story, but by the time we get to the part where Renaldo is secretly in love with Pepper, and they end up running away to get married themselves, the whole reveal is treated as a joke in and of itself. Watch the two sillies get silly-married. This isn't a homophobic show in its intention, but there are times like this where the execution feels uncareful at best, offensive at worst.

Speaking of which: Gloria. She just keeps firing all her nannies, so enter Adam DeVine as a manny who also seems to double as a personal trainer/nutritionist. All of these things seem to be in desperate need at the Pritchett house, but Jay and Manny predictably band together against such an idea. I think every Pritchett plot this season has come down to Jay and Manny either taking sides against each other or unexpectedly teaming up. At this point, I'm not sure there's any novelty left to the idea that those two might have their interests align, so we end up waiting for something else to happen. Which I guess is where DeVine comes in. He certainly has moments where his odd energy brings a welcome dimension to the family happenings. That weird story about his father that ended with "My disease can't be all bad if it rhymes with 'answer'"? It may not be A material, but I'll settle for B+ these days. And from where the episode leaves off with his character (he even gets the heartwarming VO at the end), it seems like we'll be getting more of him in future episodes. Stare into the face of Nathan Lane, Adam DeVine, for he is your future.

Meanwhile, the Dunphys have been the saving grace of this show all season, and with Fred Willard back as Phil's dad, it's not surprising that they were again this week. Not one thing about this storyline was surprising. As soon as Phil, Frank, and Jay walked into that bar semi-populated with single women, you knew that old hooker twist that sitcoms are so fond of would happen. By the next morning, when Claire mistakes Frank's lady of the evening (Peri Gilpin!!) for a therapist, you're ticking seconds off of the clock until that gets paid off with the runner about Haley and Alex fighting. Predictable though it is, Willard, Ty Burrell, and Julie Bowen carry it off like the pros they are, and any storyline that gets capped by Roz from Frasier saying, "Trust me, if I wanted to stab her, that skank'd be stabbed" is not a total loss. Maybe she could stick around a few more episodes.

Stray Observations:

  • Lily has been a veritable one-liner machine all season. This week, she gets a post-credits scene where she is utterly fed up with the shrieking femmes planning a wedding in the other room. From the mouths (and rolled eyes) of babes, you guys!
  • I expect we'll revisit the idea of Gloria being seen as the harlot of the baby park at some point this season.
  • Not so much Luke this week, as he was likely offscreen, trying out for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kid just grew another three inches as I was typing that.