Photo: Ron Tom/ABC

About halfway through this week’s episode of Modern Family, Jay is doing everything he can to steal a family fishing cabin out from under his sister Becky’s nose. He’s tried tricking her into giving him the security codes, and when that doesn’t work he starts to think he can trick her into believing that their father gave him the cabin instead of her. This is no family outburst at some reunion though. Rather, Becky has just had a stroke and Jay, along with Mitchell and Claire, see this as a prime opportunity to take advantage of her and get what they want. “Feed a cold, starve a stroke,” says Jay when he attempts to stop Claire from jogging her aunt’s memory with a homemade soup.

Episodes like “The Escape” leave me wondering who exactly gets enjoyment out of an endless parade of characters acting like complete assholes. Now look, I’m no comedy prude. Comedy is subjective and it can be a lot of things and challenge dominant ideas while also being offensive and crude. There’s a lot of potential in sitcoms that push into uncomfortable territory, and TV shows, or any fictional art for that matter, certainly doesn’t have to be populated with squeaky-clean characters. It’d be boring if that was the case. The Carmichael Show, the NBC sitcom that was unfortunately cancelled after just three seasons, comes to mind as a show that was willing to put a number of perspectives on TV and then tease out the motivations and preconceived notions of the characters. It was challenging, engaging, funny television, even when the characters were being complete assholes.

The ones on Modern Family are different though. The cruelty that runs through a storyline like the one involving Aunt Becky this week isn’t offensive by any means, but there’s perhaps a greater sin here: it’s exhausting and obnoxious. The behavior of Jay, Claire, and Mitchell isn’t about pushing the boundaries and offering up something that forces us to think about an issue in a different way, and their actions really don’t work as comedic punchlines. That begs the question: what’s the purpose of all this? What does Modern Family gain by dedicating nearly half of its episode to the selfish behavior of Jay, Claire, and Mitchell, only to then “swerve” the audience and reveal that Aunt Becky is equally as monstrous?

Modern Family airs an episode like “The Escape” about once or twice a season, and it’s always a baffling choice. The episode begins innocuously enough, with everyone showing up to visit Becky, cracking jokes about the escape room across the street, followed by a solid line from Gloria about Becky being “all of Jay’s worst qualities wrapped up in a pantsuit.” Before long though, the family has seen their opportunity. Cam suggests that Mitchell wanting to come out to his aunt again is an ill-advised way of making this medical emergency all about himself, to which he replies, “why do I bring you to these things?”

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A punchline like that isn’t really a punchline at all. It’s got the setup and delivery of a joke, and yet, where’s the humor? “The Escape” wastes no time having Claire, Jay, and Mitchell lay out exactly what they want from a mentally hindered Becky, and the episode goes downhill from there. Every time we’re forced back into that room, with those people, it’s insufferable. Bickering and fighting is inherent to the sitcom and can help create meaningful conflict and comedy, but the interactions in this episode don’t do any of that. This is simply a production line of “jokes” that don’t land.

It’s a shame, because the rest of “The Escape” isn’t half bad. After numerous failed relationships, Haley is finally in one that feels substantial. Sure, it’s still early, and the show only occasionally checks in with Arvin, but the scenes tonight affirm that Haley is not only feeling something different, she’s putting forth a new kind of effort in her life. It’s encouraging to see, especially for a character that’s been one-note for so many seasons. What makes the rather surprising claims of love that end the episode work is the conflict that comes before, as Haley stands up for herself in a way she never really has. She’s grown in confidence, and she understands that she deserves more than to be the butt of jokes and ashamed glances. That kind of character revelation is all the more welcome in one dominated by everything laid out above.

Even the story of Cam, Gloria, and Phil getting stuck in the basement, their escape room fantasies becoming all too real, is the kind of harmless fun that’s used to pad out an episode. It puts all three characters into a tense situation, and then creates comedy out of it. It’s nothing miraculous or unique, but coupled with Haley’s storyline, it serves as a contrast to the tiring “comedy” of the rest of the episode.

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Stray observations

  • “I knew Dad’s magic shop would destroy us.” We all thought so, Haley.
  • Claire has noticed Haley’s dedication to this relationship: “You woke up early to watch soccer, and you even called it football.”
  • I really liked the way Cam, Gloria, and Phil’s plot ended with them having to channel their spouses to get out of the room. A good bit of plotting there.
  • Keeping the cameos from Andy, Dylan, and Rainer brief is a smart choice. No need to be going down those roads again.

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