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

Modern Family: “Treehouse”

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When Todd wrote “You had us at ‘Phil builds a treehouse for Luke,’” I could not have agreed more. So it was a sad disappointment to me how little Phil-treehouse-building there actually was in “Treehouse.” I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the Cam-picks-up-a-woman storyline, diverted by the star-studdedness of the Jay-doesn’t-want-to-go-salsa-dancing storyline (Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri! It’s like I’m at the multiplex circa 1995-1996!), and amused by the skeletal Haley-writes-a-college-essay D-plot. But apart from a couple of brief scenes set on a rickety platform, Phil and Luke barely made a ripple.

And then in the epilogue, one of the most satisfying moments of the whole season emerges from that nothing treehouse storyline. When Phil started bonding over the fence with his next door neighbor (“You just move in?” “Lived here eight years. You?” “Twelve”), it fulfilled the purpose of the treehouse in a way that I might have found trite if it had emerged in the third act. Hoping to give Luke a new perspective on the neighborhood, Phil finds that he could use the same viewpoint. But it’s the enthusiastic response of the neighbor, commiserating over kids’ short attention spans, volunteering to help with the treehouse, and yelling to his wife “Honey, the guy in the tree’s cool," that pushes this moment from rote plot wrapup to sweetly funny. “Aw, Phil made a friend!” I cooed to my husband, and I really felt quite misty about it.

In the Pritchett house, dinner with devil-may-care lovebirds Shorty and Darlene leads Jay to feel he’s letting Gloria down by being a homebody. (When he reminds her about the time they went to the boat show and got sherbet afterwards, she laments, “And we were home by 8:30 with no boat.”) She leaves him with his pay-per-view fight to go to a salsa dancing club with the couple, and Manny swallows his disappointment at not being asked along in order to teach Jay a few moves (“Stop marching; you’re dancing, not invading Poland!”). Two lovely little moments in this umpteenth variation of the Jay-sticks-in-the-mud storyline: When Shorty quotes an Italian proverb at dinner (“Give me your hand and we will run together our whole lives”), Gloria responds defeatedly, “Jay also hates running.” And when Manny attempts to inspire Jay’s dancing efforts by showing him an internet video of a farmer who taught his pig to dance (“See how he keeps his snout up?”), Jay gamely lifts his nose into the air.

Cam and Mitchell put some distance between themselves and the Gay Comedy Plot Handbook that has so far ruled this season. Not that this isn’t a plotline about being gay; not that it’s breathtakingly original. But it gives Cam some range, as he approaches Leslie Mann (again with flashbacks to the 1996 cineplex!) in a bar to see if he can get her number under the guise of heterosexuality. When he stands up, musses his hair, and rolls up his cuffs to get rid of “the flair,” the friend sitting with him and Mitchell exclaims, “Whoa, where did Cam go?” Mann is charming, game, and quite distinctive as the woman whom Cam feels guilty about leading on and invites over to reveal his big gay secret; naturally, she’s known all along and was hoping to pick him up as her gay best friend. How did she know? “The way you walk, and talk, and dress, and your theatrical hand gestures,” she explains.

And although there’s very little to the storyline where Claire leaves Haley on a dirt road to find her own way home in order to give her an obstacle to overcome and therefore a topic for her college admissions essay, I do like the way Claire played the ruse to the hilt. And I think I will adopt the phrase “Dear College” as a recommendation for all the admissions essays that I’m asked to review.

But the reason this episodes slides into the top tier is the elegant, funny, and yes, heartwarming way the neighbor gets drawn into the family picture. (I assume, nay, hope, that he will become a recurring character.) In the Hollywood version of the suburbs, it’s too infrequently noted how detached we are from our neighbors; I can completely relate to not knowing their names despite living next to them for a decade. And any time Phil can get a win where he had given up and was merely trying to stave off the same fate for Luke? That’s a win for me, too.

Stray observations:

  • Cam could be a womanizer. Or he could be someone who just stepped out of a machine called The Womanizer.
  • You know what can’t climb trees? Worries. Also I must agree with Jay: Nobody wants to sit on a blanket. No back support.
  • Mitchell’s immediate reaction when Cam confesses “I’m a bad man”: “Oh no, what did you eat?”
  • Luke uses the phrase “Are you, Dad? Are you?” to sneak out of situations while Phil muses over his shortcomings.
  • Haley castigates her mother for making her childhood too easy: “Gaby’s mom’s a hoarder. That essay practically writes itself.”
  • “That was a lot of girl tongue! I think I need a drink-a-doodle-do!”