Saturday, November 06, 2010

Modern Family review: Bumbling Dads, Comedy of Errors, etc

Last week's episode of "Modern Family" inspired a lot of thoughts in me:

The Dumphy Household plot: Haley and Claire are both sick and spend the day in bed together. Claire dissaproves of Haley's boyfriend and tries to have a mother-to-daughter talk with him about how she might think about pursuing other men and Haley misinterprets this as a candid confession by her mom that her marriage isn't working.
The Jay-Gloria-Manny plot: Jay fires one of his workers for allowing Manny onto a construction crane and driving through a wall. Manny feels guilty and pleads for the worker to have his job back but Jay won't budge. Meanwhile, Jay can't remember the location or occasion for the next of Gloria's anniversary dates because she overcelebrates.
The Cam-Mitchell-Lilly plot: Cam wants to put Lilly in a commercial over Mitch's objecetions

I tend to never be particularly dissatisfied with this show, because I only need one of the three plots to really hit the spot for me. The strength of the characters and general strength of writing alone ensures that an episode subplot will never be truly awful. From that perspective, it’s good that the show’s subplots aren’t usually strongly interconnected.

With that in mind, one of three plots was kind of a dud for me and I feel like the Cam and Mitchell subplots have been consistently weak lately.
I do think that Cam, Mitchell and Lilly are great to watch and I don’t remember any gay couples ever being depicted so richly on broadcast TV. I especially like how their lives aren’t so much shown in the context of the gay community (“Will and Grace” did that and it never interested me) but rather, within the context of how they fit into WASP suburbia and their families. Let’s look at the last three weeks: 1) Mitch and Cam argue about whether to turn Lily into a child actor; 2) Who’s at fault for Mitch bringing a costume to work? 3) Mitch and Cam disagree on where to send their kid to private school. The Mitch-and-Cam plots focus fairly heavily on inter-couple bickering and for the same reason I never got into “Everybody Loves Raymond,” I don’t find bickering couples that much fun to watch. The Halloween costume plot could have been much more entertaining, for example, if it just cut out the bickering and devoted more screen time to how Cam was going to get through the day.

The other two plots both were very strong. The Jay-Manny subplot was at its best when it briefly exited the wackiness of sitcomdom for a moment of realism. Jay put his foot down and refused to let Manny influence his decision over whether to rehire an employee who put Manny in danger. Even more impressive was that the moment was rooted in classic comic wackiness straight out of an episode of “I Love Lucy” and the storyline eventually transitioned back into a comic context by episode’s end. It’s a testament to the show’s richness and consistency in tone that they can merge emotional moments and comedy so well. The story's big emotional reveal- that Jay called Manny his kid for the first time- was not foreshadowable anywhere in the episode so I liked the twist there.

The Haley-Claire subplot was a great comedy of errors: Due to a certain ambiguity in their words, Haley and Claire are drawing two entirely different conclusions from the same conversation. 90% of the plots on “Three’s Company” revolved around this staple, and it’s been used in Dumphy clan storylines before (i.e. the episode about Haley’s diary). This was a good episode for Haley who often sees her parents and siblings as mere impediments to her all-important social life. It was slightly atypical of the show, however, to not have a nice little resolution at episode’s end. Claire still believes that her mother doesn’t really like her father and their marriage is on shaky grounds. For a show that aims for realism, a teenage girl’s response to her parents’ decaying marriage was treated a little too casually.

Other notes:
-It was nice that the Dumphy clan storyline referenced the staggering economy without basing a whole storyline on it.
-I was thinking during this episode about the “bumbling dad” trope that sitcoms mine for humor and how “Modern Family” employs it pretty diversely. “Modern Family” adheres to the stereotype very closely with Phil and subsequently mines a lot of laughs from his bumbling. That’s not entirely the case with Jay. Like Phil and other bumbling dads, Jay often finds himself outmatched by his stepson, but it has less to do with his incompetence and more to do with Manny being a freak of nature in terms of maturity and intelligence. Hence, Jay can do some comic bumbling but it doesn’t detract from our view of him as a very capable family patriarch.

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