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“Dead On a Rival” is a strange episode of Modern Family. It’s not bad, and it’s not good. It’s filled with flat jokes, but also a few character moments that should be meaningful. It’s an episode that isn’t exactly sure what it wants to be, but somehow manages to find something substantial here and there, even if it’s mostly treading water. Truly, that describes most of this final season, which has failed to elevate itself in its last stretch, instead settling for familiar storylines and a disappointing lack of change.

I think the main problem with this final season is that the show can’t commit to any real, significant sense of change. There have been incremental movements, but nothing has stuck. “Dead On A Rival” works in a similar way. There’s some promising, intriguing moments peppered throughout the episode, if you’re willing to look for them: Alex is essentially becoming Claire and looking to hire an assistant, and Gloria is realizing that her stranglehold on Manny is maybe resulting in some emotionally stunted behavior. But I feel like I’ve been mentioning “promising moments” all season, and most of them have been relegated to a single episode rather than an actual season-long arc.

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Let’s start with Gloria though, because there’s an acknowledgement here that could pay off. When Manny’s father Javier comes to visit, he comes with an offer: to take Manny on a year-long trip around the world. Gloria immediately dismisses the idea, despite her son’s excitement. Then, when the family attends his one-man play that’s about as obnoxious as you’d assume, knowing Manny, she has a change of heart. She suddenly sees Manny as the sheltered child he is. Despite disliking Javier, she wants Manny to have this experience, to get outside of his comfort zone for once.

As the loyal readers here know, Manny is my personal punching bag, a character who’s so one-note, stagnant, and grating that any screentime he gets is a detriment to even the best episodes. This right here is the only time the show has acknowledged that he’s been stuck in the same holding pattern for years. The last few seasons have seen Manny fail at every dramatic and romantic pursuit that’s come his way, and then do so again. There’s been no fluctuation in his character, no evidence of him becoming a different person or growing in any way. It’s been painful to watch. I hope this is Modern Family’s way of shifting the character in a different direction, and maybe giving him a final send-off that isn’t just a joke about him being bad with women or a terribly obnoxious Arts student.

Similarly, Alex has never been given much to do, especially in these later seasons. She’s jumped from college to a few jobs with no real direction or concrete story. She’s the kind of character who gets a great job opportunity, disappears for a stretch of episodes, and then pops up to tell everyone the job didn’t work out and she’s back to...whatever else she does. It’d be nice to see her get some narrative momentum, and that begins here. Sure, the idea that she’s hesitant to hire a hot assistant isn’t the most comedically original setup, but I do like that the show is giving Alex some purpose and a sense of self.

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The rest of the episode largely falls into the category of pure filler. Cam and Mitchell host a surprise guest, a man who grew up in their home and has now returned to die there, and he teaches them that holding ridiculous grudges gives you something to live for in your golden years. It’s “classic” Mitch and Cam, all pettiness and vindictiveness just for the sake of it. It’s fine! Claire and Phil’s storyline is a throwaway too, as an old neighbor (Josh Gad) comes back to town boasting riches from becoming a tech guru, and offers Phil the chance to head on a year-long space flight. Phil freaks out, not wanting to die in space, and Claire tries to wiggle her way into a job. It’s all par for the course, but balanced out by the more auspicious events throughout “Dead On A Rival.”


Stray observations

  • Is Benjamin Bratt in other things? What happened to that guy?
  • “He’s been 40 since he was 10.” “He’s been 10 for 40 years!”
  • Murray expertly sums up Cam and Mitchell: “I appreciate what you think passes as support.”
  • “We’ll always have Mitchell.”
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Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.

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