What’s the ideal scenario for a “good” episode of Modern Family in its tenth season? The show is never going to reach the heights of its strongest seasons, the ones that made it a massive hit during its earliest days, but there’s usually still a few surprises with each new seasom. A few weeks ago the show said goodbye to Didi in an episode that managed to blend comedy and pathos in an effective way. But those kinds of stakes can’t be present in every episode, so what makes a “good” episode of Modern Family in the weeks where it isn’t entertaining ideas of mortality?
“Did The Chicken Cross The Road?” might be one to point to as an example of doing just enough to justify the show’s existence in 2018. It’s an episode without any real stakes, but that revels in its low-key nature. It manages to deliver on two of its three storylines, and that’s not a bad batting average for an aging slugger by any means.
Things get off to a good start with the cold open, as Cam comes into the bedroom, waking Mitch with a high-pitched scream. Mitch wonders “what he tried to shave,” but the scream is the result of Cam forgetting the words to “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” while singing in the shower. It doesn’t sound like a travesty, but Cam insists it means he’s lost touch with his country roots. There’s only one solution. “Relearn the lyrics,” says Mitch, presuming that this will proceed logically for some reason. “Get a chicken,” says Cam matter-of-factly.
That conversation—as one-sided as it is—kicks off an episode that, in a very vague way, deals with ideas of identity. Cam believes that getting a chicken will allow him to get back in touch with his country roots, but once that happens, he realizes he hates the chicken. The mess, the need to buy feed, the noises. He hates all of it, and he’s eager to get rid of Princess Layer (one of her many names, apparently). In a twist, Mitchell falls in love, mostly because he sees himself in the chicken: redheaded and peaceful (why Mitchell thinks he’s peaceful is a question for another day).
This is the kind of low-stakes story that Modern Family can execute with relative ease. Sure, there’s some silliness in there, like Mitchell enjoying getting in touch with his country side by getting dressed up and donning an accent while buying feed at the store, but for the most part this is a story that simply plays on some character assumptions and does so in a way that leaves room for harmless jokes. There’s even a sweet resolution to cap it all off, as Cam and Mitchell realize they’ve changed each other in meaningful, nor harmful, ways.
While “Did The Chicken Cross The Road?” goes off the rails in the worst way possible with it’s story of Jay absolutely loving bossing Gloria around when he referees one of Joe’s soccer games, the other storyline, involving the Dunphys going through a family interview as part of Alex applying for a prestigious government job, is a lot more in line with the whole low-key chicken thing. Predictably, the Dunphys are all way to over the top when it comes to the interview. Claire can’t stop fussing over furniture placement and her answers to the questions, and Phil learns he was probably helping a Russian spy gather intel during his tumbling days at the height of the Cold War (what a sentence!).
The whole interview is punctuated by Luke categorizing everyone’s personality as a result of him reading for his psychology course. He labels everyone in the family, and that sets them on a course of worrying about how predictable and dysfunctional they are. Namely, Phil worries about being “a Dreamer,” someone who’s too optimistic. It’s the kind of story that could easily fall into lame jokes and stereotypes, but for the most part the episode avoids those pitfalls.
Instead, it becomes a story of how those personality types, much like Mitch and Cam, balance each other out. When Alex gets the job, and Phil responds with “I knew you could do it,” she thanks him for always saying that, for always being the one to believe in her even when she doesn’t believe in herself. It’s a touching moment, and one that gives “Did The Chicken Cross The Road?” just enough heart.
- I didn’t touch on it above because I’m not sure how to just yet, but there’s a big reveal at the end of the episode: Haley is pregnant. That could mean interesting new storytelling avenues for the show, or a season dominated by very bad pregnancy jokes. We’ll have to wait and see.
- What are we up to, three or four episodes without Manny now? Are we all enjoying our break?
- Bumper cars does sound a lot more fun than a play that runs over four hours.