The last few episodes of Modern Family have really suffered from a lack of inventiveness. So many storylines throughout this season have been versions of past plots, and that’s left the show feeling strangely empty. Both on a comedic and emotional level, Modern Family has struggled to find a consistent tone, or something to prove that the show still has some life in its seventh season. This week’s episode gets off to a messy start, but eventually finds a lot of humor in its chaotic premise. Essentially, “Phil’s Sexy, Sexy House” is a comedy of errors, where misunderstanding after misunderstanding piles up until everything comes crashing down.

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“Phil’s Sexy, Sexy House” starts out with a bit of a curveball, setting up a Thanksgiving themed episode but coming in at the end of Thanksgiving dinner. That slight shift in traditional storytelling is enough to immediately differentiate this episode from the number of stale premises that have dominated much of the season. The episode then takes it time setting up a number of threads that will converge later in the episode. It’s a formula that Modern Family has certainly used before, but it almost always works because this is a show filled with performers who thrive when they’re thrown into manic plots with a number of twists and turns.

Despite all the separate threads, with Phil mad at Claire for lashing out at him, Cam and Mitchell worried about their marriage being boring, and Gloria stealing wallets because of a surprise trip to Florida, the episode really revolves around a listing Phil secured thanks to Cam and Mitchell. The house is completely over the top, with a huge hot tub, a four-person shower, a pool, and some crazy glass fireplace thing that I didn’t even know existed. With Thanksgiving dinner over, everyone begins to leave Jay’s house. Haley takes off early and says she has to work, but she’s heading over to the vacant listing because she’s been unwinding there lately—a lengthy bath and a few joints seems to be the insinuation. Mitchell and Cam know the house is empty too, so they head over for a little alone time after realizing that their whole life revolves around Lily and is lacking in excitement. After a misunderstanding with Phil, Claire also heads over to the house dressed in medieval-era garb and primed for a night of role-playing.

This kind of story, where the separate threads converge and create absolute chaos, is typically spot-on, and while the climax here is rewarding and hilarious, the build is a bit more scattered than usual. While a comedy of errors always contains a bit of contrivance, there’s nothing really organic about how everyone makes their way to the vacant house. That stilted, jarring feel to the narrative is largely due to the structure of the episode in general. “Phil’s Sexy, Sexy House” keeps jumping around in its timeline. There are repeated lines and scenes that then shift perspective. It’s not necessarily a bad strategy when trying to tell a complex, interweaving story, but there’s almost too much circumstance involved for the flow to feel natural.

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After all, what makes a comedy of errors work is that the relentless pace to the plot makes up for the contrived nature of the misunderstandings. “Phil’s Sexy, Sexy House” doesn’t push its pace hard enough, allowing too much time to pass in between the chaos. Still, when the episode finally reaches its climax, it’s Modern Family at its best. First, Haley finds Andy at the listing and they share an intimate, but not physical, moment in the episode’s best sight gag, with every push of a button on a remote activating another romantic gadget in the living room. Then Cam and Mitchell show up hoping to spice things up themselves. Mitchell does a “lamp dance” for Cam, calling himself Magic Mitch and sloppily spinning while filling out the details of his character’s backstory. Before they can get in the mood though, Luke shows up with some friends and a six-pack.

With everyone there, Modern Family can up the ante and hand the reins to Phil, which is never a bad thing. He enters the scene and tells everyone to freeze, but he’s actually talking to his RPG buddies in his virtual reality game. With the headset on, he dashes and dives around the living room fighting all sorts of digital demons and monsters. It’s the kind of goofy physical comedy that Ty Burrell excels at, and his talent isn’t wasted here. Things get even more chaotic from there when Claire shows up in a sexy medieval costume, mistaking Phil’s request for some “role playing” as time for the two of them to be alone. Just as everything comes to a head, with Phil discovering Claire, and then her discovering Luke, Alex and Ruben stumble out of the closet. That leads to the episode’s next best beat: as Alex and Ruben open another closet, Cam and Mitchell start to sing “Happy Birthday,” hoping to cover up for their presence in the house. “Oh shut up, you know it’s nobody’s birthday,” says Claire. It’s the perfect capper to all the mania.

While “Phil’s Sexy, Sexy House” does suffer from sluggish and jarring pacing in its earliest moments, and the final tag feels rather out of place, the main plot involving the vacant listing works as a lengthy, hilarious set piece. It’s the first time in quite a few weeks where the comedy has not only been inventive, but also sustained throughout the episode.

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Stray observations

  • Phil’s code for the lock boxes on his listings is a very special birthday: Houdini’s.
  • As expected, Andy and Haley are back in each other’s lives in a romantic way. Things are about to get messy.
  • No Dylan tonight!
  • “Rub a dub dead.”

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