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Modern Family Watch: The Talented Mr. Bixby

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Spoilers for last night’s Modern Family coming up after the jump:

How do you spice up an old relationship? Or rather, how do you spice up an old sitcom trope, the relationship-comedy Valentine’s episode? That was the challenge of Modern Family last night, and I’ll give it a solid two for three.

The single subplot that didn’t do much for me was Jay and Gloria’s visit to David Brenner, which seemed more than usual an effort to shoehorn in a guest star. (And one, apropos Gloria’s comments, unlikely to light a fire in anyone who hadn’t seen him for years on Johnny Carson.) Except for the opening exchange between Jay and Gloria, who have very different definitions both of a romantic night out and of comedy—”Does he have a mallet?”—it mainly seemed to revisit the generation-gap issue we’ve seen with them since the pilot.

But I loved, from beginning to end, “Julianna” and “Clive Bixby” trying to have a Don-and-Betty-Draper-in-Italy moment at their local hotel bar. It struck me funny at first that Phil would be in a Valentine’s Day rut, since we’ve established that he’s such an overachiever at giving birthday presents, but on reflection, it made sense: he’s so singularly obsessive that it seems likely he would have decided, at some point, that birthdays were his thing and Valentine’s Day was not. And even before the build to the slapstick moment on the escalator, it was delightful seeing the two spouses trying to let themselves become other people: Phil, typically, becoming fixated on creating the right accent and backstory for his alias, and Claire, unable to let slide Phil’s clumsy line about his wife’s tiredness and list-making. (Note to role-playing spouses: probably a better idea to leave the wedding rings at home and avoid that whole minefield.)

Meanwhile, it was nice work to give Manny and Mitchell share a subplot in which they were able to help each other deal with a disappointment. We’ve seen Manny-as-spurned-lover before, but it remains funny; and I’ve been wishing that Modern Family would show us a little more of its characters’ work lives—those of them who do work—so Mitchell’s cathartic attempt to put a lawyering on Manny’s rival was especially welcome. (Also loved Cameron’s eager impersonation of the Great Shakes executive calling with a survey: “There should be a menu there to your right. To your right!“)

No great shakes, as it were, but a solid episode.

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