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Modern Family: “Diamond in the Rough”

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Sitcoms through the decades have used the family as their setting and their primary situation. Whether the family is bound by marriage and blood, or whether it’s a substitute family bound by friendship or the workplace, the reasons families are the perfect comedic situation are the same. Families can’t get away from each other. They’re stuck in their relationships. And as they negotiate differences and similarities, success and failure, they have to deal with that reality. They hold grudges, hoard secrets, form alliances, assign blame, cultivate control, and try to stay under the radar—all to deal with the one fact of life they can’t change.

At the end of the day, of course, that one fact also turns out to be the source of their most rewarding experiences and deepest emotions, but that’s not the funny part. The comedy comes from their attempts to negotiate terms of coexistence with their fellow prisoners.

That’s what undergirds “Diamond In The Rough,” a confident example of Modern Family’s thoroughly classical take on the family comedy. There are three main stories, two of which are closely linked. Claire and Cam plan to clear an empty lot and make a baseball field where Luke and Manny’s team can compete in a playoff contest that took everyone by surprise. While collecting a chalk spreader from one of Cam’s friends (“he used it to propose to a skywriter,” Cam explains in one of several jokes tonight that take more than a second to parse), the two happen upon a home for sale at a bargain price, and they recruit Phil and Mitchell in a scheme to buy it and flip it, like they’ve seen on TV.

Mitch throws cold water on their enthusiasm immediately. “If all of us do it, we can minimize the risk,” Cam suggests, and Mitch fires back: “If none of us do it, we can eliminate the risk altogether.” Phil promises to talk him into it, but in a move that let me know I was watching another MVP Ty Burrell performance, he mimes arguing, while under his breath assuring Mitch that there’s no way the two of them should let Cam and Claire get into this. The playacting lets Phil pin the bad guy label on Mitch, while pretending that he’s behind Claire all the way. This leads to a second act of escalating threats as Mitch refuses the role he’s been assigned, resenting the way Phil gets to be the cheerleader (“I am the guy at the top of the pyramid shouting ‘Go, Dreams, Go!’” Phil explains) while Mitch takes the blame. Mitch executes a doublecross by switching sides to back Cam’s desire to purchase the house, leaving Phil to carry the burden of opposition on his own, leading to a predictable but beautifully executed scene where Mitch calmly explains his diabolical plan to Phil while petting his cat (“I know it’s underhanded, but that’s the way I throw”). The best part? “Mitchell!” Phil yells into the phone, then sits on the piano, providing a perfect musical sting to the dramatics.

The B-story is initially unpromising, but leave it to Ed O’Neill to turn it into a deadpan showcase. Gloria is talking and singing to her unborn child through a microphone apparatus attached to her stomach, and Jay can’t take another minute of her tuneless warbling. At first, he’s resigned to what he sees as idiocy (“you’re going to do whatever you want anyway”), but then he starts feeling bad for the poor kid—the ultimate captive audience. So he pretends to be interested in giving the baby a chance to meet his daddy as an excuse to monopolize the microphone. “Tough womb,” he cracks when he doesn’t get a response from Gloria’s belly. A brilliant cut back from the other storyline finds him reading the newspaper into the microphone: “… leaving 17 dead and thousands without power.” The denouement, with the two making a pact not to fight in front of the baby, followed by Jay seizing the opportunity to tell Gloria she can’t sing a lick, is a bit broad and farcical. But I do like Gloria’s protest against Jay using the no-fights pact agreement against her: “That’s not fair because I am always in front of the baby!” And Jay’s realization that Gloria’s going to hold a grudge until she can extract her revenge after the birth (“I didn’t think this all the way through”) puts a nice capper on the scene.

What’s really impressive is how neatly the episode brings the other two linked stories to a single conclusion. When Phil and Mitchell see the transformation Claire and Cam brought to the empty lot, now a perfect diamond “except for that little hill in the middle” as Mitch points out, they have second thoughts about whether the two are capable of flipping the house. But the ending isn’t that simple. Jay hears about the plan and serves as the voice of curmudgeonly reason, reminding them they have know nothing about flipping a house and that mixing business with family will set them at each other’s throats—but why bother, because “you’re going to do whatever you want anyway.” The four shamefacedly decide that their family togetherness isn’t worth risking over the house opportunity, but they change their tune when Phil finds out that his real estate nemesis Gil Thorp is talking to the owner about buying. In the end, they embark on a whole new venture together, looking terrified as they put on huge grins for the confessional camera.

And behind it all, Manny is trying to make the best out of being pressed into service off the bench for the first time in the season. Sports movies tell him that he’s bound to sock the winning homer and round the bases with the whole team chanting his name, but Luke decides to train him to crowd the plate: “Some men are born into greatness; others have it chucked at their face.” In the end, Manny turns around to berate his cheering section for their conflicting advice and gets plunked, bringing in the winning run, and although he heads down the wrong base path (“is it always counterclockwise, or do I have a choice?” he inquired earlier), he still gets to hear the whole team chant his name.

What families count on is that somehow, they’ll snatch victory from whatever combinations of defeat and humiliation are lurking outside their doors. Claire wants the house project because she’s been unable to find work and wants to contribute to her family’s well-being, and also, “there’s this pair of boots” (“there’s always a pair of boots,” Cam commiserates). Cam wants to build on his recent move back into the school system and prove to Mitchell that he can manage effectively (“you’re preaching to the choir director,” he tells Claire; “Actually, it’s why I became a choir director”). And Phil just wants to stick it to Gil Thorp, almost literally; like all nemesis relationships, there’s a touch of love affair underneath. “As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, I did not marry Gil Thorp,” he tells the confessional, disparaging Claire’s abilities in real estate. “Can you imagine? … God, we’d sell a lot of houses.”

Stray observations:

  • Anyone not convinced of Phil’s greatness this season (and of the fine quality construction of this episode overall) need only witness his grumbling about the recent Dunphy bathroom renovation, which Claire touts as an example of her effective home improvement supervision. “I was a little disappointed we didn’t go for the butt-washing toilet,” Phil temporizes. When Claire responds: “I’ll wash your butt for free,” Phil mumbles, “That’s not the same thing, is it?” And later while plotting with Mitchell to scotch the deal, he says that “we might as well flush all our money down my boring old toilet.”
  • Mitchell’s turn-offs are farm, Fizbo, and most of all, Farmbo (“Howdy, life pardner!”).
  • You may have seen Luke’s baseball team on YouTube under such titles as Boy Stuck In Batting Helmet or Pitcher Beans Self.
  • Sometimes, you’ve just gotta let Jay go, then he eats some sherbet and falls asleep.
  • The little L.A. detail of the woman who owns the house, an actress who once had a line on The Rockford Files, is as hilarious as it is adorable. “Say it again!” Cam begs as they leave after being shown the house. “He went out the back,” the woman intones and then bows to their delighted applause.
  • Phil’s befuddlement with the mysteries of marriage never ceases to amuse. “You fall in love with this extraordinary person, and over time, they begin to seem ordinary. I think it’s all the nagging.”
  • Manny: “I have to be there at three for hitting practice.” Jay: “Batting practice.” Manny: “Not for me.”

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