Yesterday a few critics and I were on Twitter jawing about which we considered the best comedies on right now. Because that’s how we roll, we TV critics. Modern Family came up, and while there was general agreement that the show is hilarious and clever and warm, I added that I hoped that its warmth didn’t get expressed, in every episode, as “[Ed] “O’Neill says something gruffly sweet in last 30 secs.” This was before I watched last night’s episode, which ended with Ed O’Neill saying something gruffly sweet in the last 30 seconds.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Modern Family, I think it’s one of the best new shows on TV this year, and I thought last night’s episode had real heart independent of the closing monologue. But an excellent show carries high expectations, and it’s time for just a teeny bit of tough love. I’d like to see the show change up from those here’s-what-we-all-learned homilies, for a couple reasons:
* First, and most obvious, a show is just better if I can’t predict its ending the afternoon before it airs.
* It undercuts the documentary format. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ending an episode with a longer speech from one of the characters’ “confessional” interviews in a mockumentary show. But the Jay we hear in a speech like last night’s isn’t entirely the Jay we see in action or hear interviewed on camera in the rest of the episode: he’s more reflective, self-aware and empathetic. Though the speeches end on a tension-breaking joke—like last night’s Guilt fades, but hardware lasts forever—it verges on breaking character.
* Finally, it’s just not always necessary. Modern Family has heart and sentiment to spare, and it doesn’t need to oversell it to get us to like it. If you took the monologue out, the montage it ran over would have been just as affecting, and actually maybe more.
All that said, I thought “En Garde” was a strong episode precisely because it showed the heart that this show has, and its solid definition of its characters only a couple months into its run. The Claire-and-Mitchell figure skating storyline was an especially good example of this, because it showed that the characters are well-defined enough to have multiple aspects.
When Mitchell is with Cameron, he’s more assertive in putting the brakes on Cameron’s grand gestures and keeping him grounded (great line last night: “You look like the sun”). But when he’s with Claire, he’s a little brother again, becoming more passive-aggressive as the old resentments bubble up. Likewise, Claire, who’s the voice of sanity in comparison with Phil, becomes the alpha girl with Mitchell. But she’s also mature enough now to see what she was like, and the effect she had on her little brother (though she sticks to her guns arguing that “you would have dropped me!”), and her stepping back and striking her pairs-skating pose to make amends 20 years later was flat-out lovely, as well as funny. No explanatory monologue needed.
Also, chivalrous Manny in a fencing costume taunting his girl opponent? Could never not be funny. I may have picked on Modern Family a bit here, yes. But we pick because we love.