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After 8 seasons of Modern Family, Phil’s is the only struggle that still resonates

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In last week’s Modern Family review, I mentioned that Phil’s vulnerability often makes for an episode filled with touching sentiments and real emotions. Unlike so many storylines that descend into caricature these days, Phil’s ongoing struggle to define himself, better himself, and live up to his own expectations is a consistent strength for the show, even in its eighth season. The main reason Phil’s storylines always seem to work, outside of the fact that Ty Burrell continues to fully commit to the character, is that his emotional struggle is really the only one that still resonates. Every other character seems to be settled, having found a place for themselves, whereas Phil is just the type of person who’s eternally restless, always looking inward and thinking about ways to be a better father, husband, and person.

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In “Do It Yourself,” that kind of self-examination manifests in Phil attempting to fix the family’s dryer all by himself after he thinks he’s getting ripped off by a repairman. The story begins with Phil taking apart the dryer piece by piece, labeling them all with ridiculous descriptions, only to knock over the table and spill all the pieces and ridiculous descriptions on the floor. From there though, the episode shifts into interesting territory, using Phil’s presumed incompetence as a jumpstart for the episode’s four plots, all of which revolve around the idea of confidence and the desire to feel needed by our families.

Phil’s ability to fix the dryer—which, admittedly, does break again—instills in him a confidence he’s never felt. Phil is the man who’s always trying to prove himself to the traditionally masculine Jay, and there’s hardly a more acceptable form of traditional masculinity than fixing something with your hands. So naturally, even though Phil gets some hot afternoon sex out of it, his pride comes from the fact that he fixed the dryer by himself. He even gets Jay’s approval later on, as Phil’s newfound masculine confidence gives him the push he needs to finally delve into commercial real estate, hoping to buy up a property and turn it into Dunphy Tower (though it’s apparently more of a strip mall).

For Phil, the dryer incident makes him feel useful in a way that he never really imagined. Meanwhile, Jay’s masculinity is in danger. Coach Gary (Peyton Manning—yes, that Peyton Manning) has replaced Jay at home, teaching Joe how to throw a baseball and doing odd jobs around the house. Jay’s insecurity about being replaced, and no longer needed by his family, leads to him attempting to fix the satellite, only to get stuck on the roof. Similarly, Claire takes a cooking class with a TV chef who she admires, only to be told that she can’t cook. She’s devastated, saying that her Sunday dinners are the only thing she feels she offers to her family as a working mom.

Now, not every existential crisis in this episode is treated with necessary weight—though a darkest timeline episode of Modern Family does sound interesting—but there’s still a sense of characters grappling with the veiled, everyday struggles that many of us don’t often talk about; the ones that feel significant, but can be tough to put into words. Cam and Mitchell are worried that their reliance on technology is setting a bad example for Lily, who hires a cleaning lady through a phone app when they tell her to clean her room. That’s a particularly relevant issue for many of us, and parents in particular are in a constant battle to make sure that their children don’t get too much screen time and become lazy, while also ensuring that they’re not luddite pariahs in a culture that’s increasingly digitally connected.

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So, while Claire’s storyline shoots for a more comedic tone, the rest offer up something more dramatic with the laughs. Phil’s confidence crumbles when he realizes the dryer isn’t totally fixed, and when rival real estate mogul Gil (Rob Riggle) insists that the property Phil is looking to buy is a total waste of money. But when he heads home, ashamed and unsure of himself, it’s Claire who picks him back up. She says that he shouldn’t listen to a blowhard like Gil and that nobody knows more about real estate than her husband. “I believe in you,” she says, and that’s all he needs to finalize the sale—it’s revealed that Gil in fact had a bid on the property ready to go—and bring him back to that place of self-confidence.

Then there’s Jay, who hesitates to admit that he’s stuck on his roof because of his stubborn pride. He only manages to find his way down once Coach Gary confirms that the only reason he’s been spending so much time at Jay’s house is because he wants to impress him. He’s looking to start his own business, and he looks up to Jay, hoping that he’ll become his mentor. That’s enough to have Jay invest in a really terrible commercial, but more importantly, it’s enough to get Jay’s confidence back on track.

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The lesson then is that while our actions and accomplishments can give us a sense of fulfillment, we also need the people around us to build us up, to help us battle our inner demons, especially the ones that tell us we aren’t good enough. Claire does it for Phil, Haley does it for Claire, and even Coach Gary does it for Jay. Our accomplishments, however small, are enhanced when we have a support system around us.

Stray observations

  • Phil remembers that his father fixed everything around the house: “Lawnmowers, our car, the cat.”
  • Cam and Mitchell have an app for everything, including one called LogBuddy that sends someone to your home to to start a fire for you.
  • Lily busts out her phone to record her parents trying to dismantle a wasp’s nest: “Sometimes my friends don’t believe my stories.”
  • I love that Cam can only find an astronaut suit to wear while dealing with the wasps.
  • Mitchell to Cam after Cam’s face gets stung and swells up: “It looks like you stared directly into the Lost Ark.”
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