This week’s Modern Family, “Royal Visit,” does the rare thing of building around a central idea. Every single storyline, one way or another, explores the idea of insecurity. The stories themselves are relatable. We’ve all been there, when someone new comes into our life and we can’t help but compare ourselves to them. We measure our strengths against theirs, and because this is the way we’re wired, most of us do so unfavorably. Ideally, filling our life with admirable, inspiring people would be a good thing, something that makes us feel good about the company we keep. It doesn’t always work that way though. Insecurity is a fickle, nasty thing, and once it’s unleashed there’s basically no stopping it.

It doesn’t take long for Phil, Claire, Jay, and Gloria to start doubting themselves in “Royal Visit.” The couples are isolated in separated storylines, but their emotional headspace is the same. For Phil and Claire, their anxiety sets in when they decide to host a lunch to meet Haley’s new boyfriend, Arvin the genius astrophysicist. Phil, being Phil, wants to make sure he impresses at the lunch, and for some reason that involves buying small cups that have trivia questions on them. Before long, because this is Phil and Claire, their insecurity turns into competition. They want to prove that one is smarter than the other, and they plan on using Arvin as a judge. It goes about as well as you’d expect.

Jay and Gloria arrive at their insecurities in different ways. Jay, who Gloria finds doing pushups first thing in the morning, and with only one breakfast in his belly, is struggling with his confidence because Joe’s friend Henry has a dad who was a stunt double for Matt Damon in the Bourne movies. Joe thinks Henry’s dad is the coolest, and Jay can’t get over it. It’s eating at him in a way that’s rare for Jay, so much so that Gloria pokes fun at him for being so self-conscious. That flippant attitude comes back to haunt her though. When the family goes to Henry’s birthday party, Gloria meets Henry’s mom, a veteran who served two tours in Iraq and can climb a rock-climbing wall to save a terrified Joe. Suddenly, Gloria doubts herself, and Jay’s lame jokes about how much she loves shopping certainly don’t help.

These stories are satisfying and rewarding on their own, and some of the most inspired character work the show has done in awhile. Each plot manages to balance its comedic needs with the emotional drama. In particular, Claire and Phil’s anxiety-inducing lunch is bolstered by two superb guest turns, from a returning Chris Geere and a hilarious Jimmy Tatro, who gave one of 2017's best performances in Netflix’s American Vandal. Those guest spots not only inform the emotional insights from Haley and Alex, but they also act as a refreshing change of pace within the family dynamic. We’ve spent a lot of episodes with the Dunphys and their House of Failure, so it’s nice to get new faces in the mix, shifting up the comedic timing and energy.

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What stands out about “Royal Visit” though is the way the episode comes together as a whole. Initially, Cam and Mitchell’s time away at a yoga retreat doesn’t seem to fit in with the thematic material of the other storylines, but that all changes once Mitchell is forced into a sensory deprivation tank and Cam finds his way to a Kansas City Royals spring training session. The betrayal from Cam, and the emotional revelations from Mitchell, fit in with the insecurities experienced by everyone else in this episode. Cam and Mitchell are apparently on the retreat as a way to reconnect with each other, as a way to work on their marriage. Despite the bumps along the way, they come to realize how much they need each other. They’re two very different people, but they work together. They find comfort in sharing their specific brand of insecurity, even if they handle it in different ways. You get the sense that these are two people who sometimes have to work to understand each other emotionally, but also see the reward in that work.

“Royal Visit” succeeds because it’s funny and it’s an episode indebted to character. It doesn’t ignore the past motivations of each person. Claire and Phil can’t help but be competitive. Gloria has always kind of liked being much younger than Jay, but now she has to confront her own insecurities with Joe. No interaction is more piercing though than when Haley rips into Alex for being mean to Bill. Alex balks at the accusation, but Haley persists, saying that it’s exactly the way Alex has treated her, always making her feel stupid. For a sitcom that’s nine seasons into its run, “Royal Visit” is surprisingly poignant.


Stray observations

  • Mitchell, when he learns you have to submit a “small donation” to have your chakras cleansed: “sounds like a chakra con.”
  • “Haley laughed at me. In pity. Haley.”
  • Alex describes Bill as a “sweet, chiseled dummy.” Tatro really didn’t have to shift his American Vandal performance too much.
  • “I can totally show you Backdraft later.”
  • George Brett!
  • Bill became a firefighter because his three favorite things are “helping people, sliding down poles, and hanging off trucks.”
  • Apparently Claire didn’t understand the ending of La La Land.
  • My favorite line of the night is Mitchell describing the sensory deprivation float tank as a “bowl of trauma soup.”
  • “You’re the one fire I can’t put out, Alex. Also, grease is pretty tricky.”

 

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