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

Modern Family: "The Old Wagon"

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Now that Modern Family has been officially anointed by the Emmy voters as the best comedy on television, season two has a lot to live up to.  I confess that I was worried coming into tonight’s show that the season premiere couldn’t live up to the hype. Even though I enjoyed season one and thought its high points were among the best television had to offer last year, it’s a rough ride from a solid freshman outing to universal acclaim to the seemingly inevitable sophomore slump.

What a relief, then, to find the show in fine fettle tonight.  There was one classic setpiece — the sequence in the rapidly deteriorating family truckster-slash-time machine, punctuated by Luke’s plaintive wail “I need Buckety!” And there was a nice reminder of a underplayed comic relationship that has a lot of untapped potential, with Cam and Jay trading barbs and bonding over Mitchell’s ineptitude with tools. That’s all I need to be confident that season two could be as good as the show’s critical reputation would have us believe.

In the A-story, Claire is ready to get rid of the old station wagon taking up space in the garage.  (Phil had been planning to hand it down to Haley, but Claire nixes that plan because “It’s way to easy to get a mattress in the back.”  “Yeah, remember?” Phil reminisces.)  Having used reverse psychology to goad Phil into seeing the wagon as a selling challenge rather than a treasured heirloom, Claire has second thoughts upon cleaning out the car and finding memories she’s not ready to send off with a buyer, like Haley's security blanket and photos of the Rose Bowl (“The parade was awesome — Angela Lansbury was the grand marshall,” Phil enthuses; “Good times, she wrote!”). “A minute ago, they were babies, now they’re driving, soon we’ll be dead!” Claire despairs at this vivid reminder of the passage of the years.  So Phil tapes a cheesy “time machine” poster to the door and corrals the kids into taking the wagon for one last picnic up at the scenic overlook.  

And there the perfectly choreographed cascade of doom plays out: Luke feeling sick, the A/C filling the cabin with dust, a spider freaking out Haley, Phil spitting his chocolate shake all over the windshield, Claire’s seat collapsing, and finally everyone exiting the car as Phil shouts “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast!” before the car rolls away with Phil clinging briefly to its hood.  In my world, all sitcoms should aspire to such sequences. It’s a pile-on of disaster where no problem can be addressed without creating two new ones (and failing to solve the first problem in any way), and the rapid pace at which it unfolds creates perfect comic escalation.

The Gloria-Manny storyline is the palate-cleanser of the bunch — not a gut-buster, but not so shabby it brings the episode to a halt.  Manny is sweet on a classmate and Gloria is determined not to be a clingy Colombian mother.  But then Manny rejects his mother’s proferred empanadas in solidarity with the girl’s anti-trans fat stance, and expresses a preference for chocolate milk with a pinch of salt in it in a far-from-blind taste test (“I don’t care for it!” Gloria lies bravely in an effort to discredit the girl.)  

The problem with this plotline turns out to be its two-character structure. As we see in the Cam and Mitchell construction project as well as the Dunphy wagon adventure, it takes an ensemble to really make this show’s comic prospects gleam.  In fact, the best surprise of the episode was the realization of how potent the combination of Jay and Cam can be, especially when talking about Mitchell behind his back.  Mitchell, fancying himself not only a handyman but also an architect, is excited about building Lily a princess castle in the backyard.  Cam and Jay both know that there’s nothing more dangerous than Mitchell with power tools.  As they try to save Mitchell’s feelings while keeping all their fingers and toes about them, Jay needles Cam about gayness and Cam goads Jay by exaggerating their deviance.  When Cam tells Jay that Mitchell just wants to be in the “man club,” Jay retorts, “Isn’t that where you guys met?” “I know you’re making a joke because you’re uncomfortable,” Cam responds, “and we met at an orgy.”

Throw in the sight gag of Mitchell locking himself (and in the epilogue, himself and Lily) in the castle and looking out through windows painted with Rapunzel hair, and you’ve got a spiffy combination of slapstick and sharp dialogue — a storyline that snaps between the broad gesture and the little moment.  Take the taunt Mitchell throws at Cam and Jay from the castle he completed with his own two hands: “You two ladies enjoy your light beers!” “How does he know we’re having light beers?” Jay deadpans to Cam.  ‘Oh, we only have light beers,” Cam explains.

Modern Family, I was wrong to worry so.  Glad you’re back.

Stray observations:

  • Cam is tired of reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Lily, so he reads her a gossip magazine instead, with exaggerated preschool inflection: “While the spray-tanned starlet claims to be six weeks sober, sources Down Under say she has been bar-hopping like a coked-up kangeroo!”
  • Looks like the show is going to try to address the oft-discussed issue of physical intimacy between Mitchell and Cam: Cam gets a kiss on the top of the head, and the two hold hands.during one of the confessionals.
  • Phil uses “mememnotic devices” to remember the names of the people he’s selling to: “He looked like the guy from Foreigner, foreigners are from France, France rhymes with ants, ants ruin a picnic — what’s up, Nick?”  Even better, when he wants to mention Nick the potential wagon buyer’s name to Claire later, he has to run through the whole sequence under his breath.
  • Mitchell harbors fond memories of a bookcase he and Jay built together.  “That was my Vietnam,” Jay tells the camera.  “And I was in Vietnam.”
  • “Do you think the town of Brigadoon just magically appeared?”
  • “Garnish!  We’re men, not cavemen.”