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In my review of last week’s episode, I talked about how Modern Family is on its way to becoming the most Emmy-awarded comedy series in history because the format is so solidly conceived and its producers’ commitment to episodic storytelling makes it especially well-suited to the Emmy voting process. But in most latter-day Modern Family episodes, the show’s resistance to serialization and more ambitious storytelling is an albatross. There are only so many stories to tell about these characters and so many ways to tell them. Eventually, tedium sets in.

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“Do Not Push” is the type of episode Modern Family just can’t get away with anymore, at least without alienating its long-time viewers. The problem with the show’s stubborn policy of producing stand-alone episodes is that there’s never any sense of momentum or any consequence to anything we’re seeing. Take for example Alex, who is now apparently going on college tours. I couldn’t have been the only person caught off-guard by this. Sure, Alex was in high school and its been a few years and college comes after that, especially for an overachiever like Alex. But Modern Family always feels stuck in some kind of perpetual now. Alex is going to college, Joe is like four feet tall now, and puberty is blindsiding these kids like nobody’s business, but it never feels like it amounts to anything.

If an episode is especially clever or funny, there’s no time to think about these kinds of things. That’s why there were so many good things to say about “Las Vegas,” which had cleverness and laughs to spare. “Do Not Push” didn’t have much of either. The big difference? Structure. I’m not convinced there’s an interesting, funny way to do Modern Family episodes in which the three families occupy separate stories that never intertwine. If one plot doesn’t work on its own, it tilts the entire episode, and if more than one doesn’t work, the results are tragic.

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The biggest offender in “Do Not Push” is the Pritchett-Delgado plot, which could be lifted out and dropped into any episode in the history of this show. If not for the appearance of Manny and Joe, there would be nothing to help distinguish it from any other story the show has ever told about Jay and Gloria buying each other gifts, and getting the wrong thing, or too much of the right thing or whatever other slight variation the writers have done.

Mitchell, Cam and Lily didn’t fare much better in their tale of having the new family portrait ruined by Lily’s awkward smiling. This plot made clear why Modern Family resonates with viewers but is often lost on folks like me. It makes sense that there’s a phenomenon in which kids make weird faces in photos for a while, but as someone without kids, it’s something I’d have never really thought much about. Modern Family often plays like its writers room is full of people telling tiny awkward stories about their families that then get draped onto the show’s characters. That’s what the writers are supposed to be doing, of course, but watching the Tucker-Pritchetts made me feel like I’d more enjoy hearing whoever tell the actual story this is based on.

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As is the rule these days, the Dunphys fare the best, with a plot that splits the family on Caltech. Alex is touring the campus and flirting with her male counterpart, while Claire tries to convince her to stay close to home. Meanwhile, Phil, Luke and Haley volunteer for a study and slowly unravel during the wait. Both offered some great moments, providing a showcase for the solid Ariel Winter, and even throwing a rare emotional moment (unrelated to Dylan, anyway) to Sarah Hyland, who did an admirable job with it. Both outcomes were predictable, but it was the most consistently fun third of the episode.

Stray observations:

  • How old is Joe supposed to be now, anyway? This show has no sense of time.

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