After last week’s relatively pleasant, harmless episode, the Modern Family winter finale, “No Small Feet,” begins with Luke taking pictures of Alex’s feet while she’s sleeping so that he can sell smelly old runners to creepy folks on the internet. It’s the kind of setup that’s immediately cringeworthy, and not just because of how weird it is for a brother to do that to his sister. It’s more that Modern Family often struggles with its more ludicrous ideas; over the course of an episode they tend to fall apart. I mean, is there really a sustainable story in the premise of Luke and Alex going into business together in the creepiest way possible? The answer is no, but luckily they only occupy a small portion of the episode.

Essentially, “No Small Feet” splits itself into two distinct parts: there’s the wackier stories involving Luke and Alex, along with Phil and Gloria showing a potentially haunted house to a believing client, and then there’s the stories that aim to be a little more grounded, with a prestigious (I guess) closet award coming between Jay and Claire, and Pam’s ex-husband Bo (James Van Der Beek, an always welcome presence on any TV screen) coming back into her life in order to win her back. Shifting between the different tones shouldn’t really work, and the episode certainly stumbles from time to time, but the fact of the matter is that the two tones seem to balance each other out.

Alex and Luke’s foray into financially capitalizing on fetish is the weakest plot of the week. It never really gets going, and doesn’t even really follow any sort of arc. They basically sell some shoes and then get caught trying to do so, and that’s about it. In fact, their story interweaves at the last moment with Claire and Jay’s, which is doing something a lot more interesting. Basically, when Pritchett Closets is nominated for an award for the very first time, both Claire and Jay feel they’re not getting enough credit for the achievement. It makes sense, as they’re basically the same person. They’re both stubborn, hard-headed individuals who love the spotlight, and have an awful lot of trouble relinquishing it to anyone else.

Of course, after Jay makes a video about his rise to closet fame, and Claire chastises him for making this achievement about him and him alone, the two make up and utter words of real appreciation for one another. It’s a perfectly fine little story, but I can’t help but wonder what could have been had the show given the conflict a little more time to play out. Friction between Claire and Jay, caused by her taking over the business that Jay considers an integral part of his identity, was always going to be a storytelling option for the show. Modern Family has hinted at the tension a few times, but always walked it back before getting to that point of true conflict. “No Small Feet” does the exact same thing. There’s no sense that this conflict is real, or that actual human emotions are involved. Instead, the show takes the easy way out, which would be fine if it wasn’t the third or fourth time Modern Family has told the exact same story with Jay and Claire. 

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There’s a stubborn refusal from Modern Family to add any depth to the relationships as the seasons continue to pile up, and it’s ultimately hurting the show. There are so many opportunities to tell new stories and explore new character dynamics, and yet the show is running the same old storylines we’ve seen for seasons on end. Take Phil for instance, who’s now running his own real estate business. There’s real potential there to dig into the chaos and insecurity of what he’s going through. Last week’s episode explored a bit of that, and while there’s a hint of financial panic this week, there’s not much else. Don’t get me wrong, the story on its own hits some solid comedic beats, even if it does rely on caricature more than anything. I’m just disappointed that there isn’t more compelling conflict here, like when Jay and Phil went into business together.

I think the way the show is handling Mitchell and Cam’s storylines this season is a good example of how it should be complicating the lives of the other characters. While my impatience with Pam is well documented, “No Small Feet” uses her own history to continue to add tension to Mitchell and Cam’s relationship. I’m by no means actively rooting for Cam and Mitchell to fail—I’m not a monster, I promise—but introducing some sort of substantial conflict, as opposed to the usual problems that get solved over the course of an episode, is certainly welcome this late in the show’s run.

The thing is, Bo returning to win Pam back, while keeping his girlfriend in the car and proving he’s still the same terrible person he always was, is a comedic premise that works on its own. Van Der Beek’s turn as Bo provides the necessary laughs, and it gives Pam a chance to put her past to rest. But “No Small Feet” does more than that. It uses Bo’s return as an opportunity to examine Cam and Mitchell’s life. They didn’t expect Pam to stay this long, and while they think they’re doing the right thing for family, they’re also starting to struggle financially without the extra money that comes from renting out the apartment upstairs—(This is where I note that it’s fruitless to get into the details of how these people can be struggling despite seemingly having steady, well-paying jobs).

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Again, Modern Family is introducing a wrinkle into Cam and Mitchell’s relationship, and it feels earned. There’s something heartbreakingly real about the way their emotions fluctuate during the episode. One moment they’re fooling around during their lunch hour, the next they’re lying to each other or fighting about what’s the right thing to do with Pam. This isn’t game-changing stuff, but it’s enough to deepen our understanding of these characters, which is something that doesn’t happen too often in the later seasons of a sitcom’s run.


Stray observations

  • Phil: “If these walls could talk...” Wacky client: “They can, and they are.”
  • Apparently Pam has been in the apartment for a whole year now. I was starting to wonder about that timeline.
  • Phil thinks he can swing a haunted house in his favor: “What about Casper and The Holy Ghost? People love those guys.”
  • “Like my plasma, I decided to be positive.”
  • “Oh, Stonewall. I’m sure his statue is still up in the park.”
  • Bo’s line about “attorney-client privilege” really gained some accidental timeliness, huh?

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