Did you miss last week’s Modern Family? You know what to do.
This week’s episode, “Our Children, Ourselves,” looked into the ways parents can feel inadequate or ashamed in the eyes of their children and spouses. While two of the three stories hit on this theme directly and one did not (Jay/Gloria/Manny), all three plots were of such high quality that unification of theme was not of much concern. Throw in a small but very funny guest spot form Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe of 24 fame), and what we received was one of the funniest episodes of the season.
When one considers what makes a sit-com episode successful, a few general criteria must be met: witty (and funny!) dialogue, adept physical comedy, convincing acting performances, and creative situations where the others are used effectively (Modern Family nails these routinely). If a sit-com wants to be an excellent one (in my humble opinion, of course), it needs to throw in a couple other items: character development, real emotion, and surprise. By this last criterion I don’t mean shock — I’m talking about the unexpected. If you are reading this review, you are likely a big fan of television in general, and have probably seen countless episodes of varied comedies. In most cases, within minutes of the title card, you can predict what is going to happen in a given scene or episode. It is the great comedies that throw a curveball and become hilariously unpredictable. When Modern Family has been at its best, it has been unpredictable and exhibited the other above criteria. This week’s episode hit high notes everywhere, and mainly in this surprise component.
Of course, in the case of Mitchell, Cameron and Tracy, the “surprise” also came in the form of a shock. Yes, I thought there was no way that the red-headed “child” was Mitchell’s (that would have been way too much drama for a thirty minute sit-com), but I figured the “kid” was a nephew or some other relation. I even considered that Tracy’s husband was actually Mitchell’s doppelganger, and that was why they had a red-headed child. Never in a million years did I think Bobby was Tracy’s little person husband. That’s what I’m talking about when I offer “surprise” as a criterion for a great comedy: a completely unexpected plot or resolution to a more familiar plot (in this case, mistaken identity). This story hit the other criteria with aplomb, as well, with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet turning in very strong performances (as always), and mixing in some great, and wonderfully subtle, physical comedy (Cameron stumbling when fleeing Tracy’s living room, as one example).
The Dunphy storyline had its own surprise in that I can’t remember a plot centering around parents’ concern that their own stupidity is harming their children (now, please don’t attack me for missing some obvious episode of some other sit-com that featured a similar story. The fact that I can’t think of one off the top of my head illustrates my point: this wasn’t a familiar plot). I enjoyed how the story played out with Claire and Phil realizing that they’re not making their kids dumb, yet they still got jabbed by walking into the locked door (another fine bit of physical comedy that was prevalent throughout the episode. Kudos to the actors, Adam Shankman‘s direction, and of course the writers for writing in any important stage directions). What this story also offered was a chance for Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell to play different aspects of their characters. Claire is sometimes criticized for being too shrill and whiny, and Phil is often seen as an un-self-aware doofus. This week, that version of Claire disappeared after her initial concerns about Alex over-studying, and Phil really looked into whether his doofiness should actually be a concern. Any time these traits that are most commonly associated with characters can be challenged, or another side of a character can be revealed, a show is best served. That was exactly the case this week.
For me, the least successful (and really, this is just a slightly lesser degree of awesomeness) was the Jay/Gloria story. It’s not that it wasn’t funny. It was, namely with Manny’s dribble glass and, for some reason, his kids’ set of golf clubs. Overall though, the plot just didn’t reach the same heights as the other two. Maybe the “Jay is senile” jokes were a bit too easy, I’m not entirely sure. What was great about the plot, however, was Gloria’s continued evolution. For the third episode in a row, the combination of scripted material and Sofia Vergar’s performance has created deeper and more varied shades for the character. Here, we get Gloria’s frustration with Jay undercutting her in front of the unwanted couple. Her desire to not offend the visitors, and then guilt when they do, ties into what was revealed about Gloria in “Dance Dance Revelation“: her desire to be seen as more than a nice body and an accent. For me, this moment made “Our Children, Ourselves” one of the best episodes of the season and the series.
Claire (to Phil, about Alex’s jaw tic): Honey, Honey, Honey. Look, she’s doing that thing with her jaw again.
Phil: Poor kid, she puts so much pressure on herself.
Claire: It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing. I’ve read like a hundred articles on it. Where does she get it from?
Luke: She does that jaw thing every six seconds. It’s like the hippopotamus at the miniature golf place.
Phil: Oh, I’ve bounced so many balls of those big teeth.
Luke: It’s all about the timing! (He tries to throw a grape into Alex’s mouth.)
Alex: Stop it!
Claire: Luke, go to your room!
Luke: She has to eat. I was doing it out of love!
Cameron: I want to hear all about Mitchell in high school. Did he have a beard?
Tracy: You’re looking at her….Of course, I didn’t know that back then…..
Mitchell explains how he slept with Tracy again at their ten-year reunion.
Cameron (seeing Lily grabbed a pair of sunglasses): You naughty little girl.
Mitchell: That’s what happens when you give me Kahlua.
Claire: Sweetheart, it’s still a great score. I hope you;re not beating yourself up.
Alex: I’m not.
Phil: That’s our girl.
Alex: Sanjay’s dad is a surgeon and his mom is a professor. I can’t compete with that. I’ll just have to do the best I can with what I was given.
Phil: Good for you!
Claire (as Alex exits): We’re proud of you, Honey!
Phil: She’s such a good kid.
Claire: Yeah, she is. (pause) Did she just say she was going to do the best with what she was given?!?
There you have it. All in all, I thought this was a great episode. For all of the reasons I listed above, plus a better use of Luke than last week, and the hilarity of Cameron’s list of girlfriends (especially funny for a Broadway fan like myself, and which was well-echoed in the episode tag), “Our Children, Ourselves” really soared. What did you think of the episode? Were you surprised by the reveal of Tracy’s husband? Would you have liked to have seen more Mary Lynn Rajskub? Did you miss Haley (I think this was the first episode in the series that she was the sole absentee)? Please leave your comments below. I’ll be back next week with another review. Until then, I’m off to the hen house for some privacy.