When you’ve spent eight seasons watching a sitcom, you tend to have immediate reactions to certain episode descriptions or teasers. Fair or not, it comes with the territory of having sat through ebbs and flows of quality, arriving at an understanding of what the show does well and where it often falters. I’ll admit that when I saw this episode was going to be heavy on Frank—it’s titled “Frank’s Wedding” after all—and his Roaring ’20s themed wedding, I was a little worried. The mix of Frank, an overly obnoxious character—not a knock on Fred Willard, by the way—and the potential for wedding-themed disasters just didn’t sound like the kind of episode Modern Family could reasonably pull off so far into its run. That doesn’t mean I came into the episode without an open mind, but rather that a gut reaction after years of viewership is sometimes unavoidable. We’ve all stuck with an aging sitcom and learned its patterns, and known when an episode is about to go off the rails.

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Much to my surprise, “Frank’s Wedding” actually manages to craft something sweet and funny out of an obnoxious premise. In fact, the storyline that sees Phil, Claire, and the kids attend Frank’s wedding explores the idea that, over time, the things we find charming in people, places, and things, can start to become annoying. “Frank’s Wedding” doesn’t suggest that this is a bad thing, but rather a natural process that comes out of intimacy. If that sounds depressing, it kind of is, but Modern Family shows a way forward, and suddenly a gimmicky wedding, an old crib, and an unexpected pregnancy are lessons about embracing change while being grateful for what we have.

The three storylines that unfold in “Frank’s Wedding” each, in their own way, deal with the precarious emotional balance that comes with being part of a family. That may sound like a very general thematic statement, and initially it looks like the episode is painting in those very broad strokes that don’t quite capture the earnestness of the show’s past, but there’s enough specificity in terms of the characters that it never feels like an easy path toward sentimentality.

So first, there’s Phil, Claire, and the kids arriving at the ’20s-themed wedding, dressed entirely in period garb, only for Phil to reveal that the invitation said “optional” and that nobody else has come in costume. They all chastise Phil for embarrassing them, for always making the wrong decision and putting them in these goofy situations, like when he walked into Alex’s science fair on stilts. “Your exhibit was on daddy longlegs, I had no choice!” he protests, which is admittedly a pretty great excuse. Still, Phil takes the criticism to heart, shooting down his dad’s idea to stage a scripted paintball fight during the ceremony that Phil will be officiating.

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Two other similar storylines play out. There’s Cam and Mitchell, who are conflicted about a visit from Pam. For the first time ever, Mitchell embraces her visit with open arms, even if she seems to be suggesting an open-ended stay in order to explore a career in “regular people” modeling; remember when I said these storylines sound terrible on paper? This is a problem for Cam, who’s used to using Mitchell’s annoyance with his sister’s lateness and general disregard for other people as a way to criticize her, therefore avoiding his own awkward confrontations. Meanwhile, Jay is enjoying the benefits of being an older man, meaning that he gets to say “no” to everything, from driving Manny to pick up his prom tuxedo to helping Joe search his room for monsters. After all, he has a tee time to make.

These are the kind of wildly ridiculous storylines that often threaten to throw an episode into incoherence, but “Frank’s Wedding” pulls them all together by exploring how being part of a family unit is all about balance, compromise, and the appreciation of other people’s quirks. This becomes clear to Claire when she doesn’t recognize the straightforward version of her husband, one who doesn’t use whip cream to pretend he has rabies. It becomes even more clear to her when Lorraine tells her that what she loves most about Frank is that he makes her laugh, each and every day. “You got lucky too,” she says. So, the family comes together and stages that paintball fight after all, and the goofiness turns into sweetness real quick.

When Pam’s search for fame takes an abrupt turn, and she reveals she’s pregnant and searching for some comfort from her brother, Cam’s pent-up frustrations disappear. He realizes that while those annoyances are real—and boy, Pam is perhaps one of the most unwelcome bit characters on this show, so it’s hard to blame Cam for feeling hostile every now and then—he has a duty to protect and support his sister. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Anyone with some sort of tie to their family certainly understands balancing their personal needs with those of everyone else in their extended family.

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Jay has a similar revelation, noting that his “always say no” attitude has lead to his family never asking him to do anything. He’s missing out on so much. I’m not going to presume that Modern Family actually uses this moment as one of growth for Jay, but as an isolated moment of sentimentalism, it works. When Jay walks back into the room where Gloria, Joe, and Manny are painting and goofing around with each other and asks to participate, it’s vulnerable and moving. More than that, it’s simple storytelling, and that’s enough to elevate “Frank’s Wedding” above its various ridiculous storylines.

Stray observations

  • The look of despair on Claire’s face when she suddenly realizes the 1920s wedding might not have alcohol because of prohibition is priceless.
  • Nobody knows how long Pam is staying. Pam: “Who’s to say?” Cam: “I was hoping it would be you.”
  • Manny’s punishment for sneaking in past curfew is that he can’t go to a David Sedaris reading.
  • I love that after Joe has a scare about monsters in his bedroom, everyone bands together to repaint his room with “monster repellent” paint.
  • So Pam is apparently going to stay in the apartment above Cam and Mitchell’s house. Does this mean we’re getting more Pam from here on out? I am… hesitant about how that will go.

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