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After struggling to grow up, Modern Family finally moves forward

Photo: ABC/Ron Tom
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To say I was hesitant about an episode of Modern Family that begins with Claire entering a baby shower with vodka so that she can mix White Russians in baby bottles would be an understatement. “SuperShowerBabyBowl” starts out in a truly ominous way, with Jay stressing about how his Super Bowl party coincides with Haley’s baby shower, an event that Alex apparently cleared with him weeks ago. That kind of setup suggests dull, reductive jokes based on the “battle of the sexes,” and the early scenes don’t inspire much confidence.

Then, during the parties, Dylan overhears a few comments. They’re totally unrelated to him, but he perceives them to be about how he’s going to be a bad father, and that nobody in the family likes having him around. The most creative of the bunch is Cam asking why Jay’s chili contains dill—why is dill in here?—which Dylan mishears as a question about his presence. In that moment, the episode becomes something different. This isn’t about warring parties and the hijinks that might come with that, but rather a surprisingly astute look at how this big family is changing.

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Modern Family hasn’t always done a good job of portraying the way families grow and change over time. That kind of growth typically runs contrary to the spirit of the sitcom, where everything has to stay the same with viewers only allowing the slightest variations in formula. Despite attempts at moving these characters in new directions—Manny and Alex heading off to college, or Haley heading into the work force and dating an older professor, or Phil owning a magic shop (remember that?)—it’s usually difficult to really trace any progress.

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Haley’s pregnancy has offered up a more substantial way to move this family into new spaces and conflicts—a baby is a bit more fruitful for storytelling than college—and it’s been encouraging to see the show grapple with new issues. More encouraging is the way “SuperShowerBabyBowl” jumps ahead in time. This season has already done enough with Haley’s unplanned pregnancy, and devoting more episodes to the fear that comes with that would be misguided. So, this week’s episode moves ahead in time. Haley is significantly pregnant, to the point of being mad at other pregnant women that look “better” than her, and the family is truly preparing for a new addition.

The episode isn’t packed with emotional revelations, but it uses Dylan’s character in a way that feels fresh and meaningful. The misunderstandings are a good comedic trope, but it’s a situation that’s deepened by the show using years of character work to add some depth to Dylan. This isn’t just Dylan being offended in the moment, but rather another instance of him feeling like an outsider in this family. Sure, he’s worthy of ridicule a lot of the time, but it’s clear that he’s around for good now. And yet, no one treats him with any respect, or even just basic decency. He’s made fun of again and again. If he’s going to struggle to be a father, he’s going to need support more than anything else, and the family is failing miserably on that front.

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Claire in particular had been nasty to him. She has her side of things, which she lays out to Dylan when she finds him hiding in his van later in the episode. She says she has trouble shaking the image of him as a leather jacket-clad 18-year-old dating her 15-year-old daughter. That’s fair, but relying on old impressions impedes growth. You have to be willing to reexamine your relationships as you get older, and see them in new ways. Nobody stays the same. As Dylan points out, he may not be the ideal partner or father, but the twins are coming and that’s the reality. He also notes that he can look at himself and say he’s done everything to try and improve his relationship with Claire, and that she surely can’t do the same. It’s a good point, and it’s one of those moments that’s small but worthwhile in this episode. We don’t need to excavate every past feeling about Dylan, but it’s refreshing to see the show use Haley’s pregnancy to examine the relationships the sitcom has complacently relied on for years.

In the end, “SuperShowerBabyBowl” doesn’t quite earn the neat and tidy way it ties its storylines together. The episode-ending monologue about families growing and changing hardly applies to Mitchell’s bonding with Gloria over true crime, but there’s enough here to give the heavy-handed assertion a pass. Things are moving forward, things are changing, and that’s ultimately good news for Modern Family.

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Stray observations

  • If you missed it, Modern Family has been renewed for one final season, and that means Jesse Tyler Ferguson is still thinking about these reviews.
  • I’m not one to laugh out loud too much, but Mitchell’s scream upon encountering Christina, who he thinks might be the Bel-Air Black Widow, got me.
  • Joe follows Dylan on Instagram. “He finds beauty in the mundane.” Spoken like a true toddler.
  • “So no one’s wondering why Uncle Phil is starring in a laundromat movie?” Lily, forever the voice of reason.
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About the author

Kyle Fowle

Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.