After a hiatus of several weeks, Modern Family is back! Was it worth the wait?
Here’s a question: Do you hear that hissing sound, people? Unless I’m mistaken, it’s the sound of the creative energy in Modern Family slowly draining away. After a string of amusing but slightly lackluster episodes (with the exception of the touching “Two Monkeys and a Panda”), Modern Family returns from its late-season hiatus with an episode featuring a couple of good jokes and an interesting structure, but not a whole lot else.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some genuinely funny moments in “Musical Man”. But the episode didn’t supply a single fresh or interesting character moment (is that necessary? Maybe not on CSI, with a show as good as MF you come to expect it). It felt phoned in, as if the writers just cranked up the Modern Family formula machine and fed in the characters. It also didn’t help that the channel broadcast a rerun of a 1st season MF later that night, which showed us how funny this show could be when it’s at its best.
But enough griping! There’s some good stuff going on in “Musical Man” and we should talk about it.
We open at the Dunphy house, where Phil has hatched an idea that we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, will be the worst idea he’s ever had (except I think he’s done this one before, actually). He’s devised one of those obnoxious bus-bench real estate ads, but this one features his entire family. The slogan? “I Can’t Be Satisfied… Until You’re Satisfied!” and “Let Me Make Your Dreams Come True!”. It’s even going on the family minivan, which is pretty much an exercise in humiliation for everyone. The inclusion of the whole family is classic Phil: a touching gesture made in the right spirit that goes terribly wrong in the execution. Sometimes it’s played for a quick joke, and sometimes it’s a gag that runs the length of the episode. This is one of the episode-long gags.
Meanwhile, Haley’s SAT scores have been posted online. Alex looks them up with the eagerness of a starving vulture, only to discover that Haley hasn’t failed miserably. Instead, she’s… average (“Medium five!” crows Phil). Average enough to get into a decent college – but Haley reveals that she’s not really interested in post-secondary education. “Well, we took the scenic route but we ended up in the same place,” Alex snarks. She’s a snarky one, she is. She should get some more lines now and again.
At the Tucker-Dunphy house, Cam is ‘up to his old tricks’ with another one of his ‘wacky zany schemes’. Okay then. This time he’s creating a musical for the Franklin Middle School variety show. The theme? A Musical Trip Around The World (Mitchell: “You see, he’s focusing it by making it about the world”). The timeline? Oh, by tonight. And predictably, Mitchell is attempting to suggest with some delicacy that the kids might do better if they sang songs that they already knew.
This storyline (despite the INSANELY FUNNY payoff) feels like a bit of a dealbreaker for me. One day to learn a series of songs, and Mitchell isn’t just saying ‘you’ve clearly swum the River of Stupid and now you’re drying off on Moron Shores’? This is a point at which MF has pushed the characters into a situation that simplystrains credulity. I know – it’s a comedy! But it should still make some degree of sense. Otherwise we’re into Urkel territory.
Plus the dialogue reeks of months-old script: “Why do you have to be so critical?” “Do you really see me that way?” These kinds of lines feel like an earlier stage in Cameron and Mitchell’s development. If I had to guess, I’d say “Musical Man” was supposed to show up early in the season but got bumped to the back.
At the Pritchett household, Manny is having romantic troubles again. He’s thinking of “taking a run” at Emma, a girl in the Franklin Middle School musical. But that thread gets eclipsed by a family visit. It’s Jay’s brother Tommy, played by Mike the Terrifying Hitman from Breaking Bad. It will surprise no one to hear that Jay and Tommy have one of those rough-and-tumble insult-based relationships that starts with them trading zingers and quickly escalates to wrestling on the entranceway floor. It should also surprise no one that Gloria believes that their relationship is emotionally unhealthy, and that Jay should reach out and be closer to his brother.
Here’s what I mean by phoning it in: Manny wants a girl; a family member comes to visit; Gloria pushes Jay into uncomfortable emotional zones. These have all been done more than once on MF, and we’re not even through two seasons. This feels refried.
But then, something potentially interesting! At the musical rehearsals, Manny is trying to woo Emma in his usual stilted manner, but then Luke comes out of nowhere with his Dinosaur Arms routine: “They’re back… Dinosaur Arms! Half-boy… half T-Rex… One foot in both worlds, wanted by neither. Rawrrr!” Much to Manny’s dismay, Emma thinks he’s hilarious. It’s a safe bet that Luke is unaware that he’s cockblocking a family member (hey, get it?).
Nao iz gag timez on Modern Family. Claire is driving Haley somewhere in the newly decorated minivan. Claire, too preoccupied by Haley’s lack of interest in college, fails to notice that the ad stretches around the van in an unfortunate way, so that the driver’s side features a picture of Claire with “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and the passenger’s side is Haley with “Let Me Make Your Dreams Come True!” and of course, a toll-free phone number.
At the Pritchetts, Jay is setting up a practical joke involving a collapsible chair. Gloria is exasperated by his juvenile behaviour and implores Jay to connect with his brother on a more emotionally intimate level. So he does, only to find out that his brother has prostate cancer. And he’s so floored by the knowledge that he sits down in the collapsible chair.
Claire continues to tell Haley about the wonderful benefits of college as carloads of leering men drive by and honk their horns. Back at the house, Phil is amazed to find 19 messages on his phone, which leads to a classic smutty sitcom conversation straight out of the Three’s Company playbook. “Do you know which one you want? The little one… I think I know which one you’re talking about. I also have an older model with lots of characters… I think the carpet matches the drapes, I haven’t checked in a while”.
Phil is over the moon for about three seconds, until Alex shows him a picture of what the ad really looks like. “I guess I’ll be seeing you on Wednesdays and every other weekend,” he muses. But after a quick phone call in which he discovers that Claire is still blissfully unaware of the situation, he goes into damage control mode.
I got a chuckle and some out of this whole joke. On one level, there’s the obvious sexual stuff. On another level, there’s the notion that the signals we send out – the messages that we broadcast into the world about ourselves and our aspirations – often go awry. But on a third level, the messages are absolutely correct. Haley’s reluctance to enter college makes Claire nostalgic and forces her to wonder if she is, indeed, unsatisfied. Meanwhile, Haley’s function as a child entering adulthood is to fulfill the dreams of her parents. So it’s all wrong and all true, all at the same time.
Speaking of signs, Cameron is taking the students through the closing moments of his musical extravaganza. Everyone holds up signs that spell out “We Love The World”. The Franklin logo, a big purple “F”, is supposed to drop down but is still being painted.
Mitchell shows up with a PB&J sandwich for Cameron (pear, brie and jambon) as part of his supportive agenda, but Manny wants to talk to Mitchell in private. And here’s a point at which Modern Family pulls a weird reversal. I expected Manny to ask for advice in getting Emma to like him, since that’s been Manny’s main motivation up to this point, but instead he’s worried about the production.
And this moment flat-out does not work. The awfulness of Cameron’s production hasn’t really been sold because the rehearsal snippets have been given over to the love triange between Luke, Manny and Emma. We know intellectually that the production is probably pretty bad, but we haven’t seen it in action. And even stranger for Modern Family, the love triangle plot isn’t picked up on in act three. This is a really rare example of MF flubbing its delivery.
Anyway, Mitchell tells Manny to lay down the law with Cameron and demand a return to the old material (with only hours to go?). Cameron refuses to change and kicks Mitchell out of the auditorium.
And then it’s musical time. Everything seems to start off well enough, but things go awry (remember the theme about signs going off-message?) when Luke is hoisted up in a harness that refuses to descend. Aside from reminding me of that Woody Allen play, this is one of my faovorite moments in the episode, as Cameron waves at the piano player to keep going.
In the audience, Jay and Tommy are horsing around, but when Jay inadvertently reveals that his brother has cancer, he gets up and leaves. This leads to a scene in which we find out that his brother prefers the rough-and-tumble relationship to a more ‘open’ and ‘communicative’ relationship – indeed, that their semi-abusive banter is the prime signal of their brotherly love. Whatever.
Finally it’s time for the musical to wrap up and deliver a show-stopping ending. Unfortunately, with Luke still air, the sign at the end is transformed into “We Love The Word”. And when they drop the big F, it becomes “We Love The F Word”. The contrivance to get to that point was awfully creaky (for example, Emma ended up catching on fire, but somehow her absence doesn’t affect the sign?), but I can’t type it out without laughing.
After the show, everyone comes out to find Phil trying desperately to remove the sign from the minivan. Claire and Haley finally see what they’ve been driving around in and they freak out, but after Claire finds out that most of the calls have been for “the hot blonde” she concludes that her best years are not entirely behind her.
Here’s my hope: that they’re burning off a mediocre episode of “Modern Family” before they hit the home stretch and finish up the season with a run of excellent episodes. I look forward to the no-doubt great material to come over the next few weeks.
So? What did you think? Tell us all in the comments.
“Why do you have to throw a wet blanket on my dreams? And you know what I end up with? Wet dreams. I heard as soon as I said it just leave it alone”.
“It’s a clever way of showing that my brother’s an ass”.
“That’s a great way to stretch out a shirt, Luke”.
“Years from now, these kids will still be talking about the way I Sondheimized them”.
“I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes”.