Tuned In

Modern Family Watch: Slightly Used, Still Runs Great

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If you’re a newcomer to this blog and you’ve been reading my reviews of the new TV season this week, I would forgive you for thinking that I’m a cynical crank who hates everything. Believe me, writing my reviews this week, I feel like a cynical crank who hates everything. But as I say like a broken record, I don’t believe in grading on a curve; some fall seasons have a lot of strong new shows, and some just don’t. You watch a show because you think it’s good, not because it was in the top quartile of whatever group of shows happened to debut the same year.

Which was why it was a relief to watch last night’s season premiere of Modern Family (and tonight’s of Community, about which more later), and realize that yes, last season actually was better.

Where I might have thought that Modern Family would begin its season like it began (and ended) its last season, with a storyline that brought the extended family together, it instead presented one plot for each of the three family units (the only significant crossover being Jay’s showing up for the castle-raising). Oddly, the connecting theme of the episode was “change,” while each storyline really focused on reminding us of the dynamics the first season established in each family.

Each plot was funny in its own way—I could just type up a list of favorite lines and leave it at that—but the one that best represented how well Modern Family worked in its first year (and the occasional flaws it still needs to work on) involved the Dunphys and their station wagon.

When the show premiered a year ago, it looked like Phil would be the show’s breakout character—Michael Scott as a dad. As it turned out, other characters emerged and bloomed (and Eric Stonestreet, not Ty Burrell, ended up picking up an Emmy). Ironically, this was really a sign of the show’s strength. It could easily have built up Phil’s buffoonishness and built the show around it. Instead, it rounded out his character and dialed back his hijinks, showing us what he was good at as well. Phil’s overexuberant and given to disastrous gestures—great slapstick moments in the episode’s opening—but he’s also emotionally competent. He provides a balance to the tightly wound Claire and in his own strange way has a knack for knowing what other people need—in this case, the farewell picnic that sends the station wagon off a cliff.

It made for a fine 21 minutes of TV, which is why it was frustrating that the last minute indulged the show’s worst tendency from last season, and one it had shown signs of correcting: putting a bow on the episode with a sentimental, on-the-nose voiceover that reminded us why what we saw was a bittersweet  part of this crazy station-wagon ride we call life. It’s not necessary under any circumstances, but least of all when the episode’s theme—it can be sad when things change and we get older—was already as subtle as a dangerously wielded power tool.

The episode leading up to that point was entertaining enough that I can forgive it, but I hope the show starts to lay off the device. If Phil is as good at his job as he claims, he should know when not to oversell.

Now a select hail of bullets:

* Speaking of sales: “What line? Oh, you don’t see it? That’s because I just sold it.”

* The bit about Luke (still) believing he’d captured sunlight in a jar years ago was brilliant, but even better was his fleeting glimpse at the jar, walking away from the car disaster at night. It was a funny, sweet moment, which is yet another reason I wished I didn’t have Pa Dunphy’s speech telling me how sweet the moment was.

* The fact that Jay finds more in common with Cam than with his own son Mitchell is a familiar one on MF, but it still pays off, especially when augmented with power tools. (And it was a nice change of pace to see Jesse Tyler Ferguson, rather than Stonestreet, handling the physical comedy in their storyline.) “Did you think the town of Brigadoon just magically appeared? Well, in the play it did…”

* Finally, while the show never fails to make use of Sofia Vergara’s Charo-like pronunciations, it’s worth noting that she’s a good comic actress even while saying nothing: the angry-frustrated look on her face as she fought showing enjoyment of the evil salted chocolate milk was fantastic.

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