Last season’s Thanksgiving episode saw Modern Family dig into the little details of interpersonal, familial relationships in a meaningful way. There was the usual craziness that accompanies any episode where the whole family gathers together—namely, a goat died—but what remained memorable by episode’s end was the way the show dug into the feelings of its characters in a way that didn’t feel particularly manipulative or broad. Instead, “Thanksgiving Jamboree” provided a template for how Modern Family can handle these types of all-inclusive episodes as the show’s season count continues to rise. In essence: a focus on character moments that feel genuine act as a grounding force for the more ridiculous, exaggerated antics.

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Really, it’s all about balance, and that’s something that this season’s Thanksgiving episode, “Winner Winner Turkey Dinner,” struggles with. This is an episode that’s heavy on the contrived, outlandish scenarios, but doesn’t have that emotional aspect to act as an anchor. Perhaps the episode would succeed with even just one more character-focused arc, but from the outset, “Winner Winner Turkey Dinner” is a mess. It’s an episode that’s overstuffed with details and asides and storylines that it’s nearly impossible to keep up, and that results in some truly haphazard comedic timing.

As an example, let’s just look at the first 10 minutes of this episode, or everything that comes before the first commercial break. The plot kicks off well enough, with Jay giving a toast at Thanksgiving dinner, celebrating everyone in his family. While normally he singles out one person for their accomplishments, therefore fueling the intense competition in this sometimes-toxic family, this year he’s congratulating everyone. He points out how they all recently accomplished something substantial, and in typical Jay fashion, he takes all the credit.

Now, that’s a familiar, harmless enough start to the story, with Jay being selfish but also being kind of sweet. But then, as it becomes clear that everyone in the family has lied about their personal triumphs, the various storylines become so stuffed with twists and information that it bogs down any momentum that can be built out of the very idea of everybody lying.

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A number of solo interviews and scenes reveal that: Gloria is trying to reach 100,000 steps on her FitBit-type device; Cam is not only acting Vice Principal now, but has also won some big, important football game as coach; Mitchell was able to fend off a burglar who broke into his house; Phil has purchased a Normandy phone booth for a magic trick in order to drive traffic to his new store; Manny is doing favors for Luke in order to get an exclusive VIP card to a menswear sale; Luke is using Manny to photoshop pictures of Joe in dangerous situations in order to cover up his incompetency as a babysitter; there’s an app called Inseam that everyone in the family seems to use for various reasons; Claire is running a 10k race; and Alex is doing a study on positive and negative reinforcement, and decides that Claire will be her unknowing test subject.

All of those details are revealed before the first commercial break. It’s information overload, immediately establishing this episode as chaotic in an exhausting way rather than an entertaining, comedically fruitful way. It’s a disconcerting start to the episode because it puts too much on the table. There’s no way that Modern Family can keep up with all the needs of each storyline while also finding the time to tell some jokes and construct some sort of episode-long arc for the characters.

Sure enough, the plot starts to buckle immediately. The goal of the episode is to slowly unravel all the lies and deceits, with one leading to the other, but there’s so much going on from one scene to the next that there’s little time to let it all sink in. Phil’s trick becomes more complicated when his claustrophobia rears its head, a secret he’s keeping to himself. It’s the first of many secrets, but the only one that doesn’t get exposed. Claire is revealed to have accidentally taken the wrong route in the race, Gloria put her device on Claire to get her steps, Luke and Manny, of course, have been lying about everything, Mitchell didn’t fend off an knocked himself out with nunchucks, and Cam didn’t win the game with superior coaching skills, but rather overheard the other team’s play call on his walkie-talkie. Oh, and coming completely out of left field, we learn that Joe has been expelled from school because Jay got into it with a teacher when she tried to cater to different ethnicities during the school’s Thanksgiving lunch.

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Now look, some of these “conflicts” are fine on paper. I fully expect Claire to accidentally cheat at a race and then just roll with it, and it makes sense that Mitchell wouldn’t want to be seen as a bumbling weakling in front of his judgmental family. But “Winner Winner Turkey Dinner” makes the mistake of giving everyone a lie and a source of potential conflict, which means that nobody really gets any time to shine. When Phil pulls off his magic trick at the end of the episode, and the whole family declares him the true winner, it’s a nice moment after a slog of an episode. Perhaps it’s no accident that Modern Family’s Thanksgiving episode bites off more than it can chew.


Stray observations

  • “She was motivated by my stingy praise.” No Jay, you’re just the worst.
  • I love Phil’s passion for the Normandy box, and his rather intense reciting of the history that led to it being protested by, as he says, “hippies.”
  • “I’m sort of a hero in the sustainable magic community.”
  • “My store will be the laughing stock of the mini mall, and there’s still a Blockbuster there.” Blockbuster was great, just so we’re clear.
  • Jay’s history of Thanksgiving is, to be generous, the one written by the winners. In others words, historically inaccurate. Cam: “This is what I was taught.”

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