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I’ve spent a fair amount of time criticizing how Modern Family treats its tertiary characters. Namely, whatever the likes of Alex, Manny, Luke, and Haley are going through never really seems to matter in the grand scheme of things. Seemingly important storylines are introduced and then abandoned, or, more commonly, ignored for long stretches. The most prominent example of that is Alex’s time spent at Cal Tech. College should have been fertile ground for the show to give Alex more meaty material, and yet, here comes “Commencement,” not only noting that time has passed without the show really noticing, but also failing to deliver a meaningful payoff.

For the family, this is a day of two graduations. There’s the high school graduation, where Jay is giving a speech as the town’s entrepreneurial leader—is his closet business really that significant?—and Cam is stepping in to run the show when the Principal is hurt in a car crash. What’s strange is that barely any of the episode’s runtime is dedicated to either graduation, with Alex’s commencement getting the short end of the stick, a mere 4 minutes or so at the end of the episode. Instead, different iterations of the family end up in side stories that range from the ludicrous to the annoying.

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As usual, there’s nothing worse than what’s happening with Jay, Gloria, and Manny. They begin their day at Joe’s karate lesson, and it’s there that Gloria bribes the sensei into giving Joe a yellow belt. That causes Manny to question what he’s been unfairly awarded throughout his life, including his recent passing grade in his arts class. He confronts his mother at the first graduation, where Jay is struggling to deal with a protest from a group of students who learn about a past indiscretion where he cut down a forest for the cedar to build closets, killing a species of owl in the process, and Joe overhears it, leading to Gloria admitting everything in front of the whole family later on.

I mean, just read that paragraph above. If you didn’t watch the episode, you can still imagine how inconsequential it all is. I’m genuinely confused about what Modern Family thinks it’s doing with these characters. Manny, Joe, Gloria, and Jay are consistently put in tertiary stories that not only lack any dramatic or comedic aspects, but usually stray into farce that simply isn’t funny. Who wants to hear Jay yelling about hippies? Anyone?

Similarly, the tension between Mitchell and Cam, which boils down to Cam dealing with a graduation going off the rails and Mitchell lying about getting massages instead of trumpet lessons for two years, doesn’t add much to the episode. There’s a great gag with Cam talking about how the balloons at the graduation represent the students who inspire him and give him hope, only to have a mere two balloons float up because of Phil’s clumsiness, but otherwise this is forgettable stuff. It hits all the beats you’d expect, complete with Cam channeling his inner country boy to somewhat save the disastrous graduation.

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Claire and Phil fare slightly better because any plot involving how they’re embarrassed by Luke and Haley is satisfying. Some of the comedy here is pretty predictable, but I enjoy when the show acknowledges that Luke and Haley are not only major disappointments when compared to Alex, but that Claire and Phil clearly think the same thing. They have a favorite, and they don’t work too hard to hide it.

Still, the structure here is baffling. The whole point of the episode is to build to Alex getting her degree, an achievement that’s meant to be a big deal for her, and for the family. Phil and Claire spend the entire episode trying to prove to other parents that they have at least one successful kid, going on and on about her graduating from Cal Tech and considering a job at NASA.

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But the episode itself spends no time with Alex. Near the end of “Commencement,” with the other graduation over, the family finds Alex wandering the streets in a haze. She’s uncovered a proof that shows mathematics is meaningless, and it’s shaken her. She doesn’t want to go to her graduation, because what’s the point when you learn everything is meaningless? The family tries to give her words of wisdom, but it’s no use. At least until Luke and Haley step in, saying that this is clearly not about mathematics, but about Alex being scared of leaving school, where her life was defined by clear goals and expectations. With the real world on the horizon, she’s freaking out, but as her siblings state, if they can survive in the real world, she definitely can.

It’s a sweet enough moment, and a solid payoff to the critical comments they endure throughout the episode, but it feels tacked on to an episode that’s distinctly not about Alex. The whole thing would land a lot better if we actually spent time in Alex’s head, understanding why she’s nervous and what that means to her worldview. Instead, “Commencement” introduces us to a distressed Alex in its final minutes, and expects the emotional crescendo to be effective. It’s a waste of a moment that Modern Family could have made special.

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Stray observations

  • Claire’s pettiness will never change.
  • Also, “our daughter joined ISIS”? Really? That’s a “joke” concocted in an actual writers room?
  • “That’s a lot of deaths for one year, we should probably have the police look into that.”

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