Looking for trends in half-hour TV comedies is probably an exercise in illusion-spotting. A few sub-par episodes strung together, and all the sudden the show is in decline and unlikely to recover. It might be useful to step back from our trend-spotting mania (to which weekly review columns like this one, admittedly, inevitably contribute) to remember that a television series is a marathon. Picking out a few slow miles in the middle and deciding that the runner has lost it and is certainly done and over with — not the right way to look at it. Modern Family has had a rough third season in the eyes of critics, but the viewers keep showing up. And rightly so, because there’s nothing structurally wrong with this show. Give this excellent cast the right script and the right director, and they will kick it to the finish line strong every time.
Maybe I should have gone with some kind of horse racing metaphor up there, given one of tonight’s plotlines. Remember that a television series is a three-day event, guvnah! (Well, I tried.) “Lifetime Supply” puts together three strong plotlines, none of which hit a bum note, and pulls the whole ensemble together for a classic third act. I love both the notion and the execution of the series of omens portending Phil’s death: running out of the lifetime supply of twin-blade razors he won on the game show Smarty Pants (“Two blades in one razor?! It’ll never get better than that!”) coupled with Gloria’s dream about a black mouse (which is made hilarious by her constant horrified gasping). It’s the kind of plot that’s not really original — dozens of sitcoms have pulled the old “unknown results from the doctor” bit — but Phil’s increasingly terror-stricken outbursts, Gloria’s collusion, and everyone eventually becoming convinced of the crisis make it fresh again.
Just as good is Manny’s trip to the racetrack with his two dads. Number one: Benjamin Bratt is always a welcome presence on my television screen, and his Latin suavity play like gangbusters as he enchants Manny with his intuitive approach to picking the ponies. Jay insists that scientific analysis of the Racing Form is the way to go, only to be shown up by Javier’s communion with the horse every time. The one race Jay does manage to win is overturned by a DQ; when the scoreboard flashes “INQUIRY” and Jay shouts, “What does that mean?!”, Javier deadpans with just a trace of smugness, “It is when a horse has committed an infraction.” This is an outstanding use of the Manny-Jay dynamic, incorporating aspects of Jay’s know-it-all persona and his anxiety over his stepdad status, rendered unexpectedly touching in the confessional when Jay explains, “I know I’m not his dad. Maybe I don’t like the reminder.”
Even Mitchell and Cam’s little spat over their tropheal* mantle, despite having every hallmark of yet another stereotypical bitchfest. What puts it over is the use of Alex as a catalyst to Mitchell’s change of heart, and especially what follows: Mitchell dropping Cam’s unexpectedly rich stash of awards and kicking at them when he sees a mouse. “I was going to make a big display,” Mitchell explains; “I believe you have,” sniffs Cam as he takes Lily into the house.
Without that impeccably orchestrated final scene, though, this would merely be a solid piece of comedy. Bring everyone together and let them fire off tommy-gun asides, but leave the sniping and sentiment at the door. Gloria insists on bringing coffee cake, as is appropriate for health crises, igniting Jay’s resentment both when he finds out no illness has yet been confirmed and his annoyance that Javier gets credit for the cake (“he carried it in from the car, I paid for it”). Javier’s presence as a wildcard yields appreciative glances from Cam (“Who is this?” Claire asks; “Who indeed,” murmurs Cam) and inappropriate flirtation directed at Claire (his answer to her question: “Manny’s father and Gloria’s former husband and lover”). And even Claire gets a moment to contribute to the comic escalation, instead of just emitting shrill yells that poke at our ears and make us wonder whether we ever liked her. When she becomes convinced that the Saturday phone call means something really might be wrong, and her face shows Phil that she’s no longer confident it’s nothing, his reaction to losing his rock (“the plane’s in trouble — you put away the drink cart and you’re strapping in!”) is something we all understand.
This show’s not in any trouble. It needs more consistent writing, and it needs to learn from its body of work where its strengths and weaknesses lie. But there’s no reason we can’t see episodes like this one more weeks than not.
*And with this post, I have fulfilled my obligations to www.savethewords.org.
- Javier dismisses Jay and Manny’s plans: “Golfing — that is for old man and women who like women.”
- Sofia Vergara has a great week to start 2012. I especially like the confessional where she talked about Javier taking Manny to the petting zoo, “which later I found out that was the name of the stripper club.”
- Luke contributes to Phil’s death obsession by bringing over elderly neighbor Philip Baker Hall to play a World War II video game: “He says cool things, like ‘see you in hell, Klaus!’”
- Good call putting more footage of Phil’s appearance on Smarty Pants in the epilogue: “Shout-out to Jay and DeeDee Pritchett, your eternal love is an inspiration to us all.”
- “I love gambling! It’s so easy!”