Photo: Eric McCandless/ABC (ABC)

It’s not often, especially these days, that Modern Family gets to really dig into its central relationships. Every now and then there’s a storyline that tries to explore some of the complications within this massive family, but more often than not the relationships act as a springboard for the comedy. At this point in the show’s run the dynamic is established, and there’s usually very little reason to further excavate how Jay and Gloria ended up together, or why Phil and Claire, and Cam and Mitchell, seem to work together despite their differences. Valentine’s Day, though, is a good excuse for the show to strictly focus on the relationships that make up Modern Family, and perhaps unsurprisingly, that focus results in a rather charming episode.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the Joe storyline was kind of creepy, right? I mean, I understand that he’s just a kid, and the idea of him having a crush on a family member makes some sense, but as the whole thing unfolded I couldn’t help but feel a little put off. Maybe the whole “Joe is a player” routine worked as comedy for some people, but none of that really hit the mark for me. Comedy that’s as simplistic as a kid doing things an adult would do isn’t all that remarkable, and the suave lover act edges into the territory of being super weird. Joe’s largely been utilized in interesting, funny ways this season, so this feels like a big misstep, but one that at least gives us Phil once again being sweet. Let’s never take that for granted.

With that out of the way, the focus can turn to the adult relationships here, which is an umbrella term that I’ll reluctantly use to include Luke and his horrid outlook on love and dating. What’s great about “Written In The Stars” is that it tells a number of separate stories that don’t really connect in any way, but that share some similar character psychology. The show then uses that character psychology to comment on the nature of all sorts of relationships, from first love and first dates to marriage and commitment. Modern Family has struggled to tell these kinds of cohesive stories as of late, which makes “Written In The Stars” all the more refreshing.

What’s so heartening about this episode is that it treats the characters like people with histories and feelings, insecurities and strengths. Too often in these later seasons Modern Family treats everyone like an empty vessel, a set of simple characteristics that can be adapted to fit whatever the comedic premise may be. “Written In The Stars” takes a step back and examines who these people are. It all begins with Claire and Phil, dressed up in ‘80s garb for their night of role playing like their 17-year-old virgins (one of them, at least), stopping Jay from once again disappointing Gloria on Valentine’s Day with a cookie and a balloon. They tell him to spice things up, and, despite his reservations, he takes their advice and undertakes his own role-playing scenario, channeling Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven.


Of course, the night doesn’t go as planned, as Gloria’s ability to impersonate a sex worker is a little too good, and that leads to security kicking them out of the hotel. But the hijinks aren’t really the point in this episode. It’s the emotional moments that really stand out. That’s not to say that “Written In The Stars” isn’t funny, because it probably has more landed punchlines than almost any episode this season. What the episode does successfully is find that balance that’s needed to make both the emotional and comedic moments land. Jay’s fruitless attempt at role playing is hilarious in it’s awkwardness, but balanced out by its sweetness and his realization that he needs to do more for his wife. Similarly, Claire and Phil might go too far with their babysitter role playing situation, ending up in Gloria and Jay’s bed, but that’s also offset by how much they’re into each other. More often than not Modern Family pits its partners against each other, so this is a nice reminder that they’re together for a reason.

“Written In The Stars” finds its most affecting material in two polar opposite relationships: Cam and Mitchell’s long, mostly steady marriage, and the complicated feelings that arise out of Haley’s newfound relationship with Alex’s professor, Arvin. Haley is initially intimidated by the professor, a genuine genius with a number of awards on his resume. His accomplishments only serve to shine a light on how stagnant she’s been, so she takes off. A random wrong turn takes her back to Arvin though, and just as they make up, Alex shows up thinking that Arvin has called her there, realizing that she’s the sister he’s drawn to.

Coupled with Cam and Mitchell’s story, where the latter finally opens up in a way that Cam’s been aching for, “Written In The Stars” finds its most compelling material. Cam and Mitchell have been through a lot this season, and it’s nice to see an affirmation of their love for one another, even if it takes a boneheaded Luke to make it happen. More interesting though is the potential in Haley and Alex falling for the same man. That’s a pretty standard sitcom setup, but Modern Family usually spends all of its time showing how different Haley and Alex are—Arvin might cheesily note that they come from two different planets—that the promise of them sharing something, even if it’s affection for an older man, is refreshing. The show has the opportunity to dig into the messiness of all this in intriguing ways. Here’s hoping that even as Valentine’s Day fades, the focus on relationships continues.


Stray observations

  • Jay only has one answer when he’s pressed to come up with a role that he thinks is sexy: “General Eisenhower, the father of the American freeway.”
  • “Let’s take a picture and use Facebook how it was intended to be used!” “To find out how racist our friends in high school are?”
  • I’m pretty sure Luke’s date dodged a massive bullet.
  • “I feel like the rest of the Breakfast Club when they found out Judd Nelson was more vulnerable than they thought.”
  • “That’s not deeper. That’s just doubling down on the same disturbing thing.”
  • I see no lies in Mitchell and Cam’s description of Luke: “Ever since you hit puberty you’ve been a little disgusting.”