Every now and then, Modern Family remembers that its characters have jobs, life goals, and a number of decisions that revolve around those things. It’s not all that often, perhaps only a mention here and there because, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter what these characters are doing with their lives. Modern Family is well into the stage of its run where the characters are more familiar archetypes than anything else. For instance, Phil is less an evolving, growing character than he is a set of characteristics that tell us when to laugh at him. That’s true of pretty much everyone on this show. When was the last time Claire or Manny felt like a dynamic character? It’s not necessarily a bad thing so much as it’s the nature of a sitcom that airs for numerous seasons. At some point character definition just doesn’t matter as much anymore, and comedic premises become the focus of each new episode.

“CHiPs And Salsa” is a strange episode, one where the show does one of those rare check-ins on the aforementioned “jobs and life goals” while also falling into the trap of some truly obnoxious premises. If I told you that Phil and Claire spend the episode competing with each other, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. Again, we’re familiar with the archetypes, which can be useful for comedy, but also means we’re familiar with the stories too. It’s hard for things to feel fresh when the show simply continues to tell stories about how Phil and Clair are competitive, or how Luke is uncertain about his future, or how Gloria struggles to define herself.

In an attempt to shift those kinds of stories, “CHiPs And Salsa” spends most of its time contemplating where these characters are going. It’s been a long time since the show’s really spent significant time filling us in on the lives of these characters, but this episode is largely dedicated to just that. When Cam and Mitchell go out for a ride-along with the local police force, something organized by a law school friend of Mitchell’s named Lucy, we learn that he’s been offered a job as a prosecutor, and has been mulling it over for awhile now. When Haley’s boss wants to get into the “pepper” business because of their healing powers, we learn that Gloria is still in the sauce business. When Phil and Claire give Luke a pep talk about going to college, we learn that Luke still wants to go to college. Who knew?

It’s refreshing to see Modern Family working in these plot points as a way to give us some insight into the headspace of these characters, but it’s also a weird feeling. The show never really offers up much in the way of narrative storytelling from one episode to the next, so when it tries to connect some threads across isolated episodes, the result is a little disorienting. Instead of buying into the idea of Gloria wanting to sell her sauce business, or getting invested in Mitchell’s feelings about a big change in his career, you’re too busy thinking about how it’s been ages since Modern Family told us anything about Gloria’s business or Mitchell’s job situation.

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It doesn’t help that the more focused, pseudo-personal storytelling doesn’t allow for all that much comedy. Mitchell and Cam’s ride along is easily the best part of the episode. It feels loose and funny in a way the other contrived situations don’t, and it all leads to a climax where Cam confronts Mitchell about his fears of being a prosecutor. Sure, he undercuts the pep talk by immediately backtracking when Mitchell mentions making a lot less money, but at least the rest of the plot holds up well.

That’s simply not true elsewhere, as “CHiPs And Salsa” fails to find anything interesting to say about Phil and Claire’s competitiveness, or Gloria’s frustration with her business. There are two different problems here. For Phil and Claire’s story, it’s the fact that we’ve seen every possible iteration across nine seasons. There’s nothing left here, and maybe Modern Family understands that, because by the end of the episode both Phil and Claire have agreed to ease into the next stage of their life together, even if that means getting a robot to answer the door. As for Gloria’s storyline, the problem is that it’s difficult to care about her business struggles. The show just doesn’t spend enough time with that aspect of her life, so there’s no real way to get a sense of what this business meeting, and potential sale, means to her.

Without that definition, without more time spent on these stories of jobs and life goals, “CHiPs And Salsa” can only tell us how these characters feel rather than show us through meaningful storytelling.

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Stray observations

  • I’d be curious to know how long Gloria has been trying to sell this sauce. How long has the business been failing in the world of Modern Family? It feels like she started that venture a very long time ago.
  • Luke gets admitted to what’s surely not a sketchy college that allows him to enroll “based on his credit score.”
  • Phil’s fighting robot is named Awesome Possum. He doesn’t give a reason.

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