If you’ve watched even a handful of Modern Family episodes, you know that all three branches of the Pritchett-Tucker-Delgado-Dunphy clan will inevitably come together sometime around 22 minutes after the hour. It’s a third-act event as predictable as one of Danny Tanner’s morally uplifting parental lectures on Full House. Near the end of “Aunt Mommy,” the family convenes, as they have so many times in the past, at Jay and Gloria’s house. But this time, the assembly feels less like a formulaic story beat and more like a symbolic gathering. In an episode that explores the increasingly porous boundaries between extended families, this makes perfect sense.
Tonight’s Modern Family isn’t the funniest episode of the series—or the season, for that matter—but it’s a standout for two closely related reasons that have little to do with its zingers-per-minute rate. First, its storyline is completely driven by personal relationships and relatable human emotion, rather than cartoonish car crashes or high-concept visual gags. Second, the episode treats Cameron and Mitchell’s quest for a second child with the sensitivity it deserves. For all its irreverent humor, Modern Family is at its core a very traditional sitcom, which is why I find myself pleasantly surprised—and impressed—by the risks taken by “Aunt Mommy.”
With some help from Mitchelll, Phil finally closes a sale to Steven and Stefan. The couple, who are friends with Mitchell and Cameron, have just had a son via a surrogate. Later that night, Phil and Claire take Mitchell and Cameron out to dinner as a way of saying thanks. Cameron’s depressed because their adoption has stalled, and surrogacy doesn’t seem like a viable option because only one of them can be the child’s biological father (“the swirl” is ruled out, perhaps wisely). Claire, in turn, is for once brimming with pride over her own children, who are a miraculous mixture of her and Phil. The wine begins to flow, and by the end of the night, they’ve hatched a plan. (Pun unavoidable.) Claire, who’s genetically the same as Mitchell, will donate her egg, Cameron will fertilize it, and a surrogate will carry the baby to term. What could possibly go wrong, right?
This scene includes my favorite moment of the episode: Phil, lubricated by several glasses of wine, tears up thinking about what a Cameron-Mitchell offspring would be like. “If you could have a baby that was the mix of the two of you! That would be soooo sweeeeet,” he slurs. It’s funny but also deeply heartfelt. And you know what? Phil’s right. (God, how I’d love it if Rick Santorum were flipping through the channels in his hotel room somewhere and landed on ABC at this exact moment.) Like so many other contemporary sitcoms, Modern Family has a bit of a mean streak. How many times have we seen Haley and Alex or Cameron and Mitchell lobbing vicious insults at each other for the sake of a few laughs? In this regard, “Aunt Mommy” is a refreshing change of pace: an episode that finds humor in some very sweet, sincere moments. Best of all, it achieves this without the use of a cloying voiceover. Everybody wins!
In the sober light of day the next morning, both Claire and Mitchell are gripped by doubt. Nursing what appears to be the world’s worst hangover, Claire worries about the attachment she’ll feel to the child. Mitchell is also concerned how the child would relate to his “aunt mommy” and concludes the whole scenario is a little too “Appalachian” for his taste. (Trend story idea: Will incest be to this year’s comedies what it was to last year’s dramas?)
The family convenes at Jay and Gloria’s for some kind of brunch-ish thing, and Claire and Mitchell are both reluctant to admit their cold feet about the baby plan. Jay and Gloria both disapprove—“The brother and sister can’t make babies,” she says—but, in a sign of the times, the Dunphy kids are all for it. An intergenerational spat breaks out, and Claire and Mitchell take a time-out under the table. They both express their love for each other, but admit they can’t go through with the plan. It’s a brief moment, but played just right. Instead of escalating into farce, for once the siblings communicate frankly with each other. When Cameron anxiously pops his head under the table and asks, “Baby? No baby?” my heart breaks for him a little. You can feel how much he wants the baby, and how much Claire and Mitchell want to give it to him, but they’re making the right decision—for themselves and for the show, too, probably. Someone pass the tissues, please.
Now that I’ve regained my composure, it’s time to address the extremely familiar C-plot that rounds out the episode. Jay thinks Manny should be doing “guy” things like playing football instead of collecting lucky pennies and going to the theater. Truth be told, this doesn’t exactly qualify as a “plot development,” since it more or less describes the permanent state of affairs at the Pritchett-Delgado household. Horrified that his stepson drinks hot tea and takes constitutionals (Manny isn’t really a metrosexual as much as he is a 78-year-old English lady), Jay cancels his theater tickets so he can go to football practice. Predictably, Manny is injured when he stops to pick up a stray penny on the field. I don’t get why, at this point, Jay is still trying to change Manny, but I still find myself moved by his final gesture: surreptitiously pocketing four of Manny’s lucky pennies so he and Gloria can continue their quest together.
Boy, am I growing soft in my old age.
- For the record, this isn’t the first time a sitcom has done the “aunt mommy” thing: Phoebe on Friends gave birth to her brother’s baby.
- “What was Elton John’s sexual orientation in the ’70s?” “Byeeeee!”
- I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m really happy to see that Phil’s work has become a more consistent part of the show.
- “What was I thinking, I’d just get drunk and I’d bring a baby into the world?” “That would be four for four.”
- “What are the chances your eggs would even work?” “What are the chances we can pretend I never said that?”
- “The house does come with a hookup for a European washing machine.”