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I’ve said it more than a few times before, but I’ll say it again: Modern Family is very bad at situating its characters in a specific time and place. Some of that feeling of untethered time is just the nature of the sitcom, but some of it is bad storytelling. “Yes-Woman” brings us a lot of cringeworthy moments, and I’ll get to plenty of them in a minute, but what’s most obvious from the outset is that this show has no idea how to build to meaningful moments. Did you know Alex is graduating? Did you know that she was still in school? Did you know that this moment means a lot to Phil? No, I didn’t think so.

There are more egregious crimes in “Yes-Woman,” but I’m consistently baffled by the way Modern Family just drops and then checks back in with storylines when it feels like it. Alex’s college career is nothing but a haze at this point, a collection of sloppily-defined moments that never add up to anything resembling an actual character arc. This time around, Phil decides to surprise Alex with a visit—his very sweet motivation is that he’s always felt distant from her, and he’s worried the distance will only grow when she graduates—and he learns that she’s up for a year-end award that she didn’t tell anyone about.

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On the surface, that’s a perfectly fine story to tell! Alex has always been embarrassed by her parents, and she’s always been independent. It’s not unlike her to hide this kind of achievement. But the problem is that the episode tries to ring some emotional nuance out of a moment with no build whatsoever. “Yes-Woman” simply establishes the necessary narrative beats on the fly; Alex is graduating, Alex is winning an award, she’s not telling anyone, and Phil is hurt. There’s been no inkling of these feelings prior to this episode, which results in emotional revelations that don’t feel totally earned. Look, I’m a sucker for a good “Phil feels all the things” storyline, so I’m always going to get a little sappy when the show rolls out this type of stuff, but there’s the critical part of me that realizes it’s rather empty in the grand scheme of things.

Still, I’ll take the rushed emotions of that plot over everything else in this episode. Like most weeks, I can’t even begin to explain what’s happening with Jay, Gloria, and Manny. Their whole subplot is a mess of half-constructed storylines, jokes, and ideas. There’s something about Jay’s golf club giving time to people who play bocce, which somehow turns into a misunderstanding about Jay being a swinger, which dovetails with Gloria feeling unhappy about how Jay isn’t taking care of his appearance anymore. There’s just too much going on here, and none of it connects. It’s impossible not to check out when Manny, Gloria, and Jay are on screen.

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Some of that messiness can be excused by the fact that Jay, Gloria, and Manny’s storyline is largely in service of Claire’s attempts to be a more positive person...nay, a “less negative” person. When Claire sees a video of herself being cruel to everyone around her—actions us viewers have suffered through for years—she becomes determined to change her behavior. She promises to start saying yes to everything, no matter what it is.

That’s an interesting path to explore for this character. Claire has always been a character that’s difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, she’s dealing with some truly dumb people in her life, so her shrewdness is justified. On the other hand, she has a way of dominating those around her to the point of killing their spirit. Digging into what Claire understands about herself could be interesting, but then the episode turns it into something really, really weird.

In essence, Luke is dating a much older woman from the club where he works; similar to Alex, are you surprised he still works there? Me too! That woman turns out to be Claire and Gloria’s yoga teacher, and when she tells them about her reservations about dating a younger man, both women tell her to roll with it. Claire is particularly enthusiastic, talking about the hard bodies of young men and admiring the ab selfie on the woman’s phone.

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Of course, all of this ends up coming back to smack Claire in the face when she realizes the woman is dating Luke. She’s appalled that she found her son’s abs attractive—the episode’s tag, where Claire sees Luke in a different light when his shirt is accidentally lifted up, is just so, so gross—and that her happy-go-lucky attitude led to this. That gives her every reason to return to her old self, saying no to everything involving Luke, his new fling, and the weird swinger controversy involving Jay. It’s a comedy of errors that would work in any other context, but the creepy context can’t be ignored. Essentially, I spent more time being weirded out than I did laughing.


Stray observations

  • I didn’t get to it above, but Cam and Mitchell’s storyline this week is pretty solid. They talk about aging, living life to its fullest, and the feelings they express about their middle age feel particularly apt. I like when those two confront who they are and the life they’re living in a meaningful way.
  • Phil has one question for the genius at Alex’s awards ceremony: “Would there be a safe amount of helium to give a baby to life it off the ground?” The line of the night, easily.
  • The bar trivia trophy moment is sweet, but once again hardly earned.

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