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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: "Coal Digger"

Illustration for article titled Modern Family: "Coal Digger"
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Where you stand on the Phil question may be an indication of where you stand on Modern Family.  Is he Michael Scott without the tie?  Or is he the breakout star of this show?  Here's a test for you.  When Gloria was dramatically asking what she needed to take off in order to prove that she's not just interested in Jay's money — "Should I take off these earrings?  this bracelet?  this dress?" — and Phil kept quiet instead of joining in the chorus of "no!" for the last item, we can stipulate that we all saw that coming.  But was it still funny?

I say yes, and I say that Phil — whom I've had my doubts about because of his broad cluelessness — won me over this episode  His amateur therapist routine turned out to be central to the main storyline about Gloria and Claire's distrust of each other.  It starts with Manny and Luke fighting at school over Manny calling Luke his nephew (technically true!), leading to the parents of each kid driving home talking about what bad parents the others are.  (Claire: "Her kid wears aftershave and dresses like a count.")  Gloria wants to have it out with Claire for the way Claire has made her feel unwelcome in the family, but Jay advises her to sweep it under the rug.  Phil, on the other hand, wants Claire and Gloria to talk it out, perhaps because he envisions a cat-fight or at least a chance for a group hug.

Just when Gloria and Claire are on the verge of reconciliation, however, Manny and Luke come in to report how they've mended fences by gleefully insulting each other family, including Luke calling Gloria a coal digger, a term he misheard from his mom on more than one occasion.  So much for Gloria and Claire, best friends; Gloria flees to her room, where Phil arrives to try to fix things.

And that's when Phil proved his mettle.  Gloria confirms that Jay gives her nice things — this yellow thing, and this red thing, and all these colorful things — with each assertion tossing panties and bras onto Phil, seated on her bed.  Phil's demeanor while besieged by undergarments was a thing of comic beauty.  He conveyed embarrassment, excitement, and crushing guilt over his excitement without moving a muscle.  Every time the camera caught him, I was laughing.  And yes, when he didn't speak up about taking off the dress, it was hilarious.  Not in the least unexpected — how much more of a classic set-up can you get than the rule of three? — but genuinely laugh-out-loud funny nonetheless.

That's the measure of a sitcom.  Can it find the perfect combination of emotions to portray in a very particular comic snafu?  Can it make the oldest tricks in the book sing as if they were brand new?  That's why I love the half-hour televised comedy.  Tonight it was Phil who showed us the way.

Stray observations:

- The Cam-and-Mitchell-watch-football subplot was much more subdued, but it reaffirmed why the Cam Show has so many fans.  I'm kind of in awe of the way Cam took control of that horrible (yet again, quite sitcom predictable) situation of the dad asking his gay son whether he's attractive; his gusto made the scene work.  And maybe the nicest moment of the show outside of Phil's bravura performance as a clothesrack was Cam saying to the confessional camera: "I was a starting offensive lineman at the University of Illinois.  Surprise!"

- No, I take it back — the nicest moment was Cam holding Lily through the door to give Mitchell the double question: "Do you, Mitchell?  Do you?"  But then, I'm just a sucker for babies being held up and made to pretend to say stuff.  Never not funny.

- Luke's curious scientific experiments: stopping a mister fan with his tongue, riding a pogo stick on a trampoline, eating bubble solution off the wand.

- "We all know you'd be fine without underwear."

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