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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: “Baby On Board”

Illustration for article titled Modern Family: “Baby On Board”
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Season finales have to make big moves—weddings, funerals, graduations, births. Or do they? Noel Murray’s For Our Consideration essay on series finales asked some tough questions about why we consider some terrible disappointments and others magnificent send-offs. What are we looking for from a season finale? It’s not the end, although in some cases the creative team has to write with the possibility that it could be. But the typical approach to the series finale, best exemplified by “A House Divided” (a.k.a. “Who Shot J.R.?”) which ended Dallas’s third season, is the cliffhanger. Or better yet, a whole slew of cliffhangers, as many as you have characters to dangle.

“Baby On Board” plays with that soap-opera approach to the season finale quite deliberately by having Mitchell and Cam’s adoption fall through because of the small-town secrets, scandals, and revelations of the Latino family from whom they were getting the baby. I like the idea and the execution, even though it strays further into the realm of fantasy than this show usually ventures. Maybe, the episode suggests, telenovelas aren’t exaggerated at all. Maybe they’re Mexican gritty realism!

But just because we’re poking fun at the concept doesn’t mean we don’t need a litany of rites of passage in this season finale. Let’s tick them off one by one. Alex is going to prom, although it turns out her date is gay but not yet self-aware. (In a moment that can only be described as fabulous, Phil takes a picture of the couple, then says “Now one with flash,” prompting the date to strike a jazz-hands pose.) Haley is not going to prom, but that’s because she’s trying to jump-start her adulthood by taking a gap year (which involves, among various personal growth activities, working at the Gap) and moving in with Dylan. But then Luke reveals that he’s been hoarding various pieces of mail that will change the family in ways he’d rather avoid (“report card, report card, notice from the city to take down the treehouse or pay a fine of $20 a day”), including Haley’s acceptance at the college that previously waitlisted her. Dylan releases her from the cohabitation plan and takes her to prom instead.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Cam get notification that a mother in Calexico has chosen them to take her baby, and she’s delivering right this very second—which conflicts with Lily’s dance recital. While dropping her off at the Pritchetts, Mitch realizes they need a Spanish speaker along on their baby retrieval mission (“Frio, muy frio,” Cam mutters when his language proficiency is slighted), and Gloria gets dragooned into service, leaving Manny and Jay in charge of attending and recording Lily’s performance. But when the adoption is scuttled by shenanigans reminiscent of Gloria’s (and Jay’s) favorite telenovela Fire And Ice (“if you ask me, it was the sexy priest,” Gloria opines), Mitch breaks down and admits to Cam that he can’t go through the waiting and preparation and disappointment again. They decide to take a break from trying to get Lily a brother.

It’s Jay and Manny who have the least-momentous storyline, unless you consider “first dance recital” a hugely suspenseful moment. Jay has to talk Lily into performing when she refuses to go on due to ambivalence about the adoption, and in a rather lovely coda, we see that he ends up submitting to her demand that he dance with her. The reference isn’t to a big moment for Lily, but for the parents and grandparents who treasure them. When we bring these kids into the world, we anticipate those recitals, proms, college acceptances, and the like. That’s the setting for Gloria’s cliffhanger bombshell: She’s pregnant. The Pritchetts are going to have a baby together.

One reason I’ve stuck with this show through its sometimes rocky existence is that I recognize the occasional truth that it’s telling. And the truth in “Baby On Board” is a big one. You imagine golden moments and scenes full of nostalgia when you’re a new or expectant parent, but you remind yourself constantly that it’s unlikely to be as you imagine it or as the postcard you’re carrying around in your head portrays it. But it’s genuinely surprising how often it’s just exactly like you imagine it. Your kids building castles out of blocks, having their first sleepover, performing in the school musical, winning the big game. It’s just as advertised. And that’s probably because your expectations stem from your memories more than anything else. It was real when it happened to you, and here it is again, only now experienced at a distance that seems threatening at first, but ends up convincing you that these moments aren’t manufactured—that they have real meaning.


So I don’t mind the cliffhanger at all. Not only is this a genuinely new dynamic for the show to explore, as the Pritchetts add a new ingredient to their blended family, but it’s also presented in the context of the repetition of childhood through each succeeding stage in life. We observe again as parents or grandparents, for however many times we repeat the process, and we know the same moments are going to recur, and maybe we get a little confidence with each go-round that we can count on them not to dissipate in a fog of cultural baggage and nostalgic expectations.

Stray observations:

  • Best gag of the night: Manny putting out the charcuterie board for sustenance during the model airplane construction. Jay exclaims: “That’s charcuterie? I’ve been avoiding that on menus for years. They’re killing themselves with that name!,” and later shushes Manny when he offers Mitchell and Cam a taste. A selection of tasty cured meats—what’s not to love?
  • Worst product placement of the night: The new Prius is so roomy you can put two carseats and a pig in the backseat. (Cam: “It’s a unit of measurement we use on the farm.”)
  • Dylan believes he can provide for Haley with his T-shirt design business.  Having watched both seasons of How To Make It In America, I am not optimistic about this plan.
  • Phil has no idea what happened to his prom date Angela Wilkins, but he will always have the memories of his dad pretending to be a British limo driver and announcing them as “Sir Philium Dunphy and the Lady Wilkins!”
  • Cam almost has a handle on the telenovelic goings-on at the hospital: “The nurse stole her grandmother’s almonds.”