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Generations clash as Modern Family begins its final season

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When Modern Family first debuted in 2009, it felt progressive in some ways, and the show was certainly marketed as a step forward for representation on TV. Sure, it wasn’t all that politically engaged or challenging, but in some ways that made it unique. This was just a sitcom that tried to represent a more contemporary family makeup. It didn’t upend the sitcom template too much, despite the very 2009 decision to shoot the show “documentary” style, but it managed to tackle some issues here and there while delivering a lot of heartfelt episodes.

At some point Modern Family lost even that edge. That’s not necessarily a knock against the show—it partly is—but rather an observation about how sitcoms morph over time. What once made them unique becomes familiar, and it’s then difficult to recapture that old spark. For both better and worse, Modern Family seems to have embraced its age, settling into a more familiar approach to its comedy and storytelling.

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That means the final season premiere feels fresh because of how much change this family has been through, and also a bit stale because there’s just only so many stories left to tell. There’s an inherent contradiction to what “New Kids On The Block” is doing, especially with Haley and Dylan’s story, as they cope with being new parents; by leaning on the idea of generational differences, with Phil and Claire meddling in Haley and Dylan’s parenting, the episode relies on a well-worn trope, but isn’t it a trope because it works? After all, Modern Family has always dealt with the generational divide that comes with things like parenting, sexuality, social issues, etc.

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“New Kids On The Block” plays up the tension between how Haley parents and what Phil and Claire did with their kids. While Haley is buying into all sorts of contemporary advice, from no pacifiers or formula to not making eye contact with your baby when trying to get them to sleep, Phil and Claire want to implement their old school methods when the twins just won’t settle down. So, Phil takes Haley for a drive to get her to sleep, just like he did when she was a kid, and then him and Claire ply the twins with formula and pacifiers.

The storyline doesn’t go anywhere surprising, but it does feel realistic, which is something (which could also be my own new parent brain just reliving those sleepless days). When Haley discovers what her parents have done, she feels betrayed by them, but it’s mostly because she feels so lost and overwhelmed. She’s afraid her “instincts” will never kick in, and that’s why she wants to follow everything a book says to a tee. That all fits in with Haley, who wasn’t prepared to fall for Dylan again, or to have a baby, never mind two of them.

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That storyline gets just enough right—the emotions, the realities of parenting, the potential conflict between new parents and their own parents—to be entertaining. Cam and Mitchell get a pretty great turn in the premiere as well, as Cam invites a bunch of at-risk kids to his house so that he can bond with them, and asks Mitchell to speak to them about the law.

Nothing goes as planned though. Cam discovers that a porcelain clown statue has been stolen, and he goes on a tirade against the kids, calling them “garbage” and “worthless.” All the berating eventually forces Mitchell to confess that he was the one who took the statue and threw it out, which in turn leads to Cam revealing that all these kids are in a theater group, and this was his way of getting Mitchell to admit what he did wrong. It’s a solid, if predictable, twist that lands the way it should.

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On the opposite side of that coin, it’s clear that this final season is still going to do everything in its power to make sure we’re annoyed by Manny and everything he does. When he convinces Jay to let him direct his dog bed commercial, the job involves working with his ex-girlfriend Sherry, the one who ran off when he abruptly proposed to her. Manny being Manny, he uses the opportunity to try and get her back. Gloria helps, telling him he needs to be forceful and assertive (yikes) to make Sherry think she wants his approval.

It’s genuinely painful to watch on multiple levels. From the repeated cartoon voice line readings, to Manny being as obnoxious a director as possible, it’s all just cruelty and abrasiveness with not a single joke or learned lesson in sight. If Manny is truly still here annoying us all, that means Modern Family is officially back.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to the last stretch of Modern Family reviews, which will hopefully also end my Twitter blood feud with Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
  • I’ve probably talked about Manny enough, but seriously, why can’t the show actually have him learn something and grow?
  • Oh yeah, Alex was in this episode too? Guess I missed it.
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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.