Recap – Modern Family 1.19 “Game Changer”

Did you miss last week’s Modern Family, “Starry Night?” If so, here’s a recap to catch up.

This week’s episode, “Game Changer,” is about the lies people tell when they try to do nice things for those they love. It begins in the Dunphy’s kitchen with Luke telling a story about a kid at school who got hit with a soccer ball so hard his eye popped out. Claire asks him to stop lying as Phil enters. Tomorrow is Phil’s birthday, but more importantly to him, it is the launch date for Apple’s iPad (and so begins the best and most integrated product placement in modern television history). “It’s like Steve Jobs and God got together to say we love you, Phil.” Claire wonders what’s so great about it. Phil explains that “it’s a movie theater, library and music store all wrapped into one awesome….pad.” “A library is a place where people get books,” Alex informs Haley. “A movie theater is where people go on dates,” Haley retorts. Phil hears none of the banter as he is too excited to get up early in the morning and wait in line at the Apple Store to get his iPad. Claire thinks this is a silly way for Phil to spend his birthday, so she offers to wait in line instead. Honored that his wife would do this for him, Phil comments that this is turning into the best birthday ever. Even better than his 11th birthday party at the batting cages when his friend Jeff Sweeney took a pitch to the nuts. “I yelled ‘Ball Two!’ Everyone laughed. It was when I knew that I was funny,” Phil reminisces. His family’s reactions belie their thoughts to the contrary.

At their home, Gloria is quizzing Manny on his spelling. Jay enters with a rosewood chess set he purchased for Phil from SkyMall. Jay asks Many if he’d like to play a game, because Jay can teach him the ins and outs of chess. Gloria tells her husband that Manny’s father actually taught Manny how to play back. Jay will have none of it; he’s going to teach Manny real chess, not Colombian chess. “Here we actually use the pieces to play the game, not to smuggle things into the country,” Jay tells Gloria. “I know one Colombian piece you won’t be playing with later,” she replies. As Jay sets up the board, Gloria tells Manny, in Spanish, to let Jay win. Manny protests, but Gloria reminds him that Jay doesn’t take losing well. Meanwhile, Cameron and Mitchell are sleeping when their hear Lily crying over the baby monitor. Mitchell gets up, but hears a man’s voice coming over the intercom. He wakes Cameron up, who immediately grabs a bat and makes his way for Lily’s room. “It’s go time!” Cameron busts into his daughter’s room, but there is no one there. Mitchell runs in, and the two notice that they are still hearing the man’s voice. Cameron deduces that a neighbor must have the same intercom and the signals are crossed. He leaves to go back to bed, but notices the rolled up newspaper Mitchell is holding. “If a spider broke in here, he would’ve been in truh-uh-ble!” Cameron jokes. Claire shows to the camera the lame light-up barbecue tongs she actually bought Phil for his birthday. She is fine with getting up early this year because she’s getting Phil something he really wants. However, we see Claire get up early and sit on the couch to put on her shoes. She starts dozing off, and though she wakes herself up for a moment, she eventually lies down and falls asleep.

The next day, Jay apologizes Manny that he beat his stepson in chess, and asks if Manny wants a rematch. Manny demurs, but says he will play again for a prize if he beats Jay. Jay agrees, so Manny suggests Jay’s watch. “Game on!” Jay announces. The players begin, with Jay offering Manny advice on strategy. Unsurprisingly, Manny doesn’t need advice, as he checkmates a befuddled Jay in seven moves. Back at his house, Cameron tells Mitchell about the marital problems Jake and Debbie, the couple whose baby monitor is crossed with Cameron and Mitchell’s, are having. Cameron believes Jake is having an affair as he always has to “work late” and is never home. Mitchell is less concerned with his neighbors as he is with his own timidity. Mitchell is upset that when he should have sprung into action, like Cameron did, he just froze. Cameron says it just comes natural to him, especially after being a crossing guard for a year. “What kind of a parent am I if I can’t protect my family?” Mitchell asks while trying to throw some punches. “Oh, you’re so cute with your little fists, I just want to put you in my pocket,” Cameron tells a frustrated Mitchell, who walks off.

In the Dunphys’ kitchen, the kids are making breakfast. Phil comes in to a rousing, “Happy Birthday!” They are making French Waffle Cakes: a waffle between two pieces of French toast, all wrapped in a pancake. An elated Phil grabs Alex and Luke into a huge bear hug. He reaches for Haley, but she’s texting so, without looking up, she gives him just one of her hands. “I’ll take it,” Phil says, not letting anything ruin his big day. “Where’s Mom?” Luke asks. “In the Apple Store, making all of my wishes come true,” Phil gleefully responds. The camera pulls back, however, to reveal Claire still sleeping on the couch! Phil picks up a hot pan of French Waffle Cakes, and drops it, loudly, on the floor. Claire is roused, and immediately realizes that it’s the morning. She grabs a bunch of helium-filled balloons Mitchell and Cameron had sent to hide behind as she makes a break for the front door. The last thing she hears is Phil instructing the kids, “Don’t wash the pan until I see if I can get any of my skin back.” Later in the day, Claire reenters the house, where she is met by an excited Phil. He playfully asks where his iPad is, and she lies saying that she left it in the car to give to him during his party that evening. “You’re the best wife ever,” Phil tells Claire. She tries to lie, but the guilt is too much for her. She spills the beans that she accidentally fell asleep on the couch and that by the time she arrived at the store, they were all sold out. The store will have more next week, so she’ll get him one then. “Next week?!?” Phil decries, “That’s the worst thing you can say to an early adopter!” Exasperated, Phil grabs Claire’s car keys and marches out. “Where are you going?” Claire shouts after Phil. “Someplace where birthdays still mean something!” he replies. That someplace? The batting cages, of course!

Mitchell goes over to his father’s house, and is let in by Manny (blatantly showing off his new watch). Mitchell is there to return his father’s tool belt. “Were you a hit?” Jay asks his son. Mitchell is confused by his father’s question, so Jay continues, “You borrowed this for a costume party, right? Did Cameron go as the Indian?” Ha ha. No, Mitchell and Cameron were doing a little construction. Jay, clearly excited by his son’s “masculine” activity, asks “What were you building?” “A gift wrapping station,” Mitchell answers. “Aaand we’re back,” Jay disappointedly replies. Mitchell goes on, and asks his father if he remembers teaching Mitchell how to fight. Yes, he remembers. Mitchell quit, saying all the fighting he needed to know he could learn from West Side Story. Well, Mitchell wants to know if his father’s offer still stands. Jay wants to see what Mitchell still remembers, so Mitchell starts to shadow box…weakly. “That wasn’t pretty, huh?” Mitchell knowingly asks. “Maybe it was a little too pretty,” Jay responds.

At the Dunphy house, Luke is trying to fly by jumping off the couch while holding into the balloons. “Maybe you’re not jumping from high enough,” Alex says to her brother. “Alex, stop trying to kill your brother,” Claire says as she enters. She needs the kids’ help to find an iPad for Phil. Haley should text everyone she knows. Alex, get on Facebook, Twitter, Buzz and whatever else to find the device. Luke…should just stop inhaling balloons. “I’m not inhaling them,” Luke replies in a tell-tale high-pitched helium voice. “Stop lying,” Claire responds and leaves. “How’d she know?” Luke dimly squeaks to Haley. Back at the batting cages, Phil is talking trash to the oncoming pitches (“I hope you packed your bags for vacation because you’re going *crack!* to the moon!”). Over the complex’s P.A. system, the call goes out for “Phil’s birthday party” which is set-up by the picnic tables. Phil is touched that Claire figured he’d be there (the site of his favorite birthday ever, remember). Phil runs to the back, and exchanges his batting helmet for a party hat. He gets to the tables and sees an all African-American family who shout, “Happy Birthday, Phil!” Surprised, but pleasantly touched, Phil gets excited…before seeing a twelve year old named Phil standing behind him.

Cameron is in the middle of ironing when he hears Jake, the neighbor on the intercom, saying he’ll make up some lie to his wife and meet the caller that night. Cameron says to a high-chair-sitting Lily that men are pigs. Jake continues saying that his wife is going to be so excited that he’s secretly learning Italian to impress her grandmother. He’ll just tell her that he has to work late again, a little while lie. Knowing the danger that white lie will lead to, Cameron tells Lily that they have to fix this and warn Jake before he ends up in a divorce! Back in Jay’s living room, having seen Mitchell’s fighting display, Jay tells his son he is going to teach him some Brazilian jujitsu. He tells Mitchell to charge at him like he’s angry. Mitchell isn’t angry though, so Jay goads him. “Remember that time for Halloween I wouldn’t let you go as Olivia Newton-John?” “ARRRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!” yells Mitchell as he rushes at his father. Jay, using Mitchell’s momentum, avoids the on-rush and skillfully places his son in a sleeper hold. As Mitchell passes out, Jay comes to the realization that Manny had hustled Jay in the chess match. Mitchell goes limp, so Jay places him on the floor until he comes around, wondering why he’s face-down on the carpet. Later, Jay tells Gloria and Manny that the jig is up: he knows Manny hustled him for his watch. Gloria tells Manny to go get ready for Phil’s party so she can talk to Jay. “Do I have time for a steam?” Manny inquires of his mother. “Yeah, but a quick one,” she replies, sending her son off for a shvitz. Jay, sensing that Gloria was in on the plot, wants to know why Manny lost the first time. Gloria explains that Jay is a big baby when he loses. “Well, I don’t mind losing to a chess genius, which Manny clearly is.” Gloria scoffs. Manny’s no chess genius — he’s not even as good as she is. Gloria’s not any good, Jay retorts; he beat her on their honeymoon. “Or did I let you win? Why would I sacrifice my queen for your pawn, huh?” she says as she makes her way upstairs. “Huh?…..HUH?” she continues, until Jay, realizing defeat, shoos her away.

Claire is informed by Haley of some iPads left at the Apple Store at The Grove, so she runs over to the store, losing her shoes in the process (I guess this settles that they live inCalifornia). She gets in line and receives a call from Luke. Fork in hand, he tells her that Phil’s cake has been delivered, but with a piece missing. Exasperated, she asks him if he actually ate piece of the cake. When he denies it, she tells him, again, to stop lying. Luke ignores his mother’s plea and asks her if it is OK that he paid the delivery guy with her credit card. Yes, that’s fine. That’s why she left her wallet at home so the cake could be paid…for…. Claire left her wallet at home! How is she going to pay for the iPad?!? “With all this running around,” she tells her son, “your father is going to think no one cares about his birthday.” Well, at least one person does: at the batting cage party, “Little Phil” asks “Big Phil” if he wants another piece of cake. “Why not, Little Phil? I have nowhere else to go,” Phil laments.

Cameron, now on his mission to save Jake’s marriage, and with Lily in her stroller, chases down the neighborhood mailman (a mail carrier working on a Saturday? Not for long!). Knowing that the mailman has sworn an oath to not reveal the residents of each home, Cameron wonders if they can work out a signal whereby the mailman can show Cameron in which house Jake and Debbie live. Maybe he can pull his left ear if they live…”They live right there,” the mailman says, pointing at the next house. In the meantime, Cameron’s better half joins his sister in line at the Apple Store, bringing his credit card along with him. While Claire thanks Mitchell for rushing over, a guy cuts in front of them in line. Mitchell is incredulous, earning a “Calm down, Gingerbread,” from the line-cutter. The siblings try to get the guy to move again, but he stands firm. So, wanting to use his newly-learned skills, Mitchell tries to put the guy in the sleeper hold…unsuccessfully. Despite his demands that the guy “Go to sleep!”, Mitchell accomplishes nothing but invoking the attention of the store’s security. They order that all three of them leave the premises. Claire tries to lie, saying that she doesn’t know Mitchell, but is discovered immediately when she has to grab his credit card to actually make the purchase. Despite her attempt to rush past the guards, Claire is picked up and taken away.

Phil confides that “the key to a good birthday, is low expectations.” He was wrong about getting an iPad, and wrong about the surprise party. “When it comes down to it, maybe we’re all just Jeff Sweeney taking a ball to the plums.” Phil enters his house with a look of bemusement at his ruined birthday. Alexinforms him that his cake fell off the counter, but Cameron is trying to fix it. “He won’t,” Phil replies. Luke tells his father that the pizzas they ordered never came. “They won’t,” Phil says in his dazed/depressed state. Even his balloons are sagging with a loss of helium! Gloria, Jay and Manny arrive for the party, but Jay wants to settle their score now, and orders Manny to unwrap Phil’s chess set. “Oh, a chess set,” Phil says, the surprise of his present now ruined. As Gloria and Jay run off for the show down, Manny eagerly asks Phil, “Is that Claire’s baked brie I smell?” “No, no it’s not,” Phil tells his young stepbrother-in-law with a pat on the head. Next, Mitchell enters, happily telling Cameron that…”Oh, Happy Birthday, Phil!”…he got in trouble for fighting today. Cameron tells Mitchell that he and Lily saved a marriage today. “This is the best day ever!” Mitchell celebrates, with Phil sinking deeper into his bemused depression on the couch.

Over the chess board, Gloria and Jay exchange moves, before Gloria rages, “If I lose, I will burn this house down!” She grabs a piece to make her next move, but Jay grabs her hand. This fight is ridiculous — they don’t need to play to prove anything. Gloria, in agreement, knocks all of the pieces off the board. “And now my gift is on the floor,” Phil says to himself. Jay confides to the camera that he stopped her because he knew she had him beat; it’s a good thing Gloria didn’t know. “Two moves!” Gloria herself tells the camera, knowing she was about to win. “I am a great chess player, but I guess I’m a better wife.”

Claire eventually gets home, and asks Haley how Phil is. “Weird…er,” she replies. Phil greets Claire in the foyer, mustering only, “Hello…wife.” Luke comes halfway down the stairs lugging a bag, calling “Mom.” “Not now, Luke!” she responds. “Don’t worry, I don’t feel things anymore,” Phil says as he makes his way for the door. When Claire asks where he’s going, Phil replies, “I’m going to the yard to get a shovel for my cake.” He leaves, and Luke tries to get his mother’s attention. He tells her that he went on the computer and got in touch with his father’s “geek friends,” told them that Phil was dying, and that his last wish was to have an iPad. Claire admonishes her son for lying, again. But Luke continues, showing her the iPad one of the friends sent over because he had two. Elated, Clarie grabs her son in a huge hug, “Oh, thank you my beautiful, little liar!”

Phil stares out the window to the backyard as the lights dim, and Claire asks if Phil wants some cake. Turning around, Phil replies, “I used to, but I don’t have a desire to eat anymore.” He is actually cut off as he sees his wife entering the room holding the iPad with a birthday cake image displayed on it. There are even candles burning on the screen. The family sings “Happy Birthday,” and Claire tells Phil to blow out the candles. Phil bends over the iPad and blows on the screen. The candles extinguish (and a couple million people at home go on apple.com to order one)! Phil takes the device in his hands and asks, “OK, who’s ready for the first day of the rest of their lives?” The family gathers around to see the iPad. Gloria asks if she can touch it. Phil answers, “Yes…but not very hard. You can touch it, but not touch it,” as he shields it from the grubby hands of his family.

In the episode tag, Mitchell and Cameron are in their pajamas, sipping tea and listening to the baby monitor. They hears Jake and Debbie thank the fact that “that guy” came over to set them straight. “What was his name?” Jake asks. “He didn’t say, but he must be an angel,” Debbie replies. Cameron smile broadly as Jake continues. “Or some creepy perv.” “Yeah, how’d he know?” Debbie wonders. “Maybe I should call the police,” Jake posits. Cameron has heard enough, so he gets up and turns off the monitor. As he leaves, Mitchell calls after his partner, “But Cam…that’s my, my program!” Back at the Dunphy house, Phil gazes longingly at his iPad. “I love you,” he tells it. “I love you too, honey,” Claire responds, having walked in behind Phil and not seeing the true focus of his love. Phil hides the iPad and replies, “Oh…OK.” When Claire leaves, Phil remains on the couch, slowly scrolling the iPad’s screen.

Commentary

I thought “Game Changer” was right on target. The episode unified the three plots with the recurring lies (and attempts at lies), but thankfully lacked one of Modern Family‘s traditional summary voiceovers on the subject. I usually don’t mind the voiceovers (not that they are the greatest things in the world), but I think one on how lying never prospers, even with good intentions, would have been too heavy-handed at the end of a pretty darn funny episode. There wasn’t a lot of blatant physical comedy (the two uses of the sleeper hold and Claire losing her shoes being the only examples), but watching Ty Burrell do his slow burn into birthday mishap madness was absolutely hysterical. The creators and Burrell could have played this episode much broader, but the understated take was a nice contrast to some of Phil’s, equally funny, physical mayhem in other episodes (like “The Bicycle Thief” and “Fizbo”). If there is anything that Modern Family has done right in its debut season, and it has done almost everything right, its balance of physical, verbal and mental comedy has been superb — not only within each episode itself, but from episode to episode, too. Having the series at the same ratio of the different types of comedy week after to week would get boring and predictable. Changing it up to a point where we move from Jay forging a turtle murder crime scene (“Truth Be Told“) to Mitchell in a dress (“Starry Night“) to Phil’s slow burn (“Game Changer”) in three successive weeks, the audience never knows what kind of comedy they are going to get. All we know is that it’s going to be funny; exactly what a sit-com should do.

On another note, as I mentioned at the top, this was probably the best use of product placement I have ever seen on television. The whole Dunphy plot centered on the iPad, but here’s the thing: it felt natural. I completely buy that Phil would be gaga over an iPad, and would want it on its launch date. So, the plot being centered on the gadget felt real to me. Secondly, the use of the “birthday cake” feature was so perfectly integrated that I bet there were millions of viewers seriously impressed when Phil “blew out” the candles. Usually, product placement is so ridiculously blatant that the show, and the product, earn nothing but mocking and scorn (see: the Ford videos on American Idol;computer logos on any spy/cop/lawyer show; the Palm Pre debacle on Survivor: Samoa). Further, a viewer can’t think of anything buthow lame the placement is every time the product is talked about or shows up on screen. Here, though, I noticed the placement the first time Phil mentioned it at the top, but afterwords, it was just part of the plot. There is a certain synergy between Apple and ABC (ABC is owned by Disney, which purchased Pixar Animation Studios from Apple in 2006. The companies remain aligned on Pixar films) which also made the placement better integrated. All in all, this was very well done.

So, what did you think of “Game Changer”? Where does it rank versus other Modern Family episodes? Did you enjoy Phil’s descent into birthday depression as much as I did? How did you feel about the iPad integration into the story? Please leave your comments, thoughts and questions below. Be sure to continue to check out TVOverMind for news, promos, photos and recaps for Modern Family and all of your favorite shows. Modern Family is off next week, so I’ll be back in two weeks with another recap. Until then, I’m off to prepare for a dance fight.

UPDATE: Evidently, the show’s use of the iPad was NOT product placement. The series didn’t receive a dime from Apple. Consider me bewildered.

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