After the travesty that was the iPad episode (which mercifully aired while I was on vacation), Modern Family was back with an episode that hit on pretty much every subplot, explored some new combinations of characters while offering fresh takes on old ones and proved the maxim: if you have a revolving driveway in the first act, it had better go off by the end of the third.
In these little reviews I’m focused a lot on how the episodes have brought together members of the different family units, but “Benched” reminded me that there are still some unexplored avenues within the family units too. For instance, we haven’t really see an extended plot focusing on Claire’s dynamic with Alex, and here she found herself surprised to find the less-Claire-like of her daughters behaving like, well, a teenage girl. (See clip, above.)
Meanwhile, the basketball-coaching storyline was, I thought, an even more effective Phil-and-Jay story than the model-airplane story early in the season. Where that one focused on Phil’s need to be accepted by his father-in-law, this one focused on the trickier urge to assert himself against Jay. And as in other of the show’s more recent episodes, it shows how Jay Phil has evolved from a buffoon into a buffoon who is actually very competent at some things, and it was a pleasure seeing him winning a small acknowledgement from the paterfamilias. (“I’m sure your steaks would have been delicious. And not chewy.”)
Also, Gloria once again said “copcake.” What’s not to love?
An addendum, and a more general note about the series: when was the last network sitcom about a family who is so plainly and matter-of-factly well-off? I’m not talking about shows in which wealth is part of the joke—say, The Beverly Hillbillies or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (or the late, unlamented Hank)—or workplace comedies (30 Rock), but rather a family sitcom about people who are casually, comfortably upper-middle class.
Big-network family sitcoms, after all, have tended to be about families who are Just Like You. (Recent sitcoms about single people—Two and a Half Men, say—are more comfortable making their characters more comfortable.) Frasier had plenty of dough, but to the extent that that was a family sitcom, it was about adults. The Huxtables of The Cosby Show were, presumably, plenty comfortable, but other than their Brooklyn brownstone (and Cliff’s collection of fine sweaters), I don’t recall a lot of conspicuous consumerism.
Modern Family’s extended family, on the other hand, is upper-middle-class as a matter of course. When Mitchell and Cam visit the beach house of Mitchell’s potential boss (Justin Kirk), they’re not slack-jawed gaga over it; you could see them imagining themselves conceivably living something like this someday. Jay and Gloria’s house is pretty palatial, and Phil, as we’ve seen, feels no pain in indulging his consumer-electronics jones; Claire, meanwhile, has no issue treating her hurt feelings with some retail therapy involving a shopping spree for Lily. You need $20 for the movies? Take $40!
I have no problem with this, by the way; while I wish TV told more stories about blue-collar families again (All in the Family, Roseanne), TV should also be about every kind of family, so I’m glad to see that Modern Family feels unashamed to flash its cash. But it’s interesting, and maybe speaks to a change in its viewers’ tastes or TV’s demographics, that it feels free to do so.