At the conclusion of "Farm Strong," Jay and Gloria wrap up their corner of the plot — a throughline that involved Gloria needing glasses, not wanting to admit she needed glasses, and the twist of Jay being a bit hard of hearing — by saying that Jay won't be able to hear her, and Gloria won't be able to see him, and they'll have a perfect marriage! Ba-dum. The joke being that he's an old man who's getting older, while she sounds like a Cartegena foghorn. It's not a bad joke, on not a bad plot, but it made me wonder if the way we're always joking about the show might not be the show behaving as intended. Maybe the show really is, at its base, a show about how three couples who don't really like one another manage to out up with their partner's laundry list of irritating foibles for the sake of keeping their quirky, modern families afloat.
Not to bring too many outside elements into this thing, but I saw Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska the other day, and it made me realize that Payne's vision of family and marriage is pretty merciless. Family members are mooching opportunists. Spouses loathe each other. Ultimately, there's a rallying together against outside elements, and all those mean things that were said end up being a kind of coded language of love, but it's hard for an outside observer not to feel bruised afterwards. And so it is with Modern Family. We're always being reminded that this is how family works. This is a family that loves and supports each other and rallies together and all that. But on a day-to-day, storyline-to-storyline level, it's tough to see beyond a bunch of unhappy people trying to deal with how miserable their families make them.
Weirdly enough, the one couple that doesn't seem to be warring with each other this week is the couple who most often exhibit this sense of mutually-assured hatred. Mitchell and Cam are so often at odds, so it's rather refreshing to see them have each other's backs pretty much throughout this episode. The complication this week is that Cam's sister Pam (that's short for Pameron) is in town, and Cam doesn't want to tell her about the engagement, because Pam is sad and single, and you know we sad, single people can't deal with anybody else's happiness. (That part is true, though. Fuck your happiness.) Lily of course spills the beans, because ugh, that one, but the twist is that Pam is thrilled for her brother and soon-to-be brother in law, and this change of attitude may well be because she's affianced to someone new herself: Bo Johnson, Cam's unrequited high-school crush. Of course, we get the ol' sitcom switcheroo, and now it's Cam who can't deal with Pam's happiness. It's a setup you can see coming a mile away, down to the family gathering where everybody tells Cam that he's kind of notoriously sensitive, confirming what Pam says, that their family sees him as fragile. But as familiar as that all way, I thought the wrap-up scene with Cam, Mitchell, and Pam in the bathroom was a sweet payoff. The push/pull within Cam of being a farm-bred, football-playing, rural-Midwestern guy while also being a relatively effeminate gay man given to flights of fancy and drama is a consistently interesting thread to pull. Sometimes the show missteps and gets a little too amazed that such a flouncy gay man could have "masculine" tendencies, but I thought it was handled subtly and well this week. Cam's phone call to Bo Johnson, all unnaturally butch, managed to say a lot about the character and his backstory while being funny and not drawing a circle around the point. And it was refreshing, by episode's end, to see Mitch stand by Cam basically throughout the episode, rather than do what's become the usual thing, which is to say something mean and then apologize.
The Dunphy plot I confess I just didn't quite understand. Maybe it's because I don't have kids and thus don't understand parental guilt, but I can't imagine why Claire felt the need to lie to Phil about how she went to Luke's soccer game. Yes, yes, he had the game of his life and Phil missed it and that's a bummer. But it's not like Claire ended up at that game out of some deception. She just finished all her errands early. The whole thing felt like the show straining to find something for Claire to have revealed at the party. Otherwise, the Dunphys were doing pretty well this week, with the scene where poor Phil's "Gutter Done" automatic gutter cleaner ended up destroying a bird's nest serving as a particular highlight. Farcical horrific screaming is a good fit for Phil, Alex, and Haley.
As for Jay and Gloria, I can't tell whether "Gloria needs glasses" is a notoriously dull subplot, or just more of what I should be expecting out of a show in its fifth season. Either way, I'm pretty sure more could have been done with Gloria's inability to read anything than what we got here. That said, it is instructive that the Pritchetts buy the brand of rat poison that comes in a cereal box. Again, by the end of the episode, we know there is love in these three families. Jay wouldn't harp on Gloria about getting glasses if it wasn't the best thing for her. Claire wouldn't lie to Phil if she didn't want to spare his feelings. But the nuts and bolts of the show still comes down to family members devising strategies to survive each other. Maybe that's married life. Again, Pameron and I invite all you happily married people to suck it.
- "I don't wanna rub our daughter's adorableness in my barren sister's face."
- Poor Pam, you guys. No new dryer and she has to make do with a flip phone in 2013?
- I could get behind a trend of putting sangria in coffee cups for public events.
- I'm glad Cam was looking out for the possibility that Bo was interested in Pam solely for her drilling rights, since apparently nobody else was.
- I couldn't decide whether the sheer number of bird's-nest jokes at Phil's expense in the latter half of the episode were groan-worthy or if they came right around the other side to being funny again. I'll say this, though: they went the long way around for Pam to make that "empty nest" comment. The loooooong way around.
- Oh, right, Alex has a Words With Friends subplot with Jay. That was a thing that happened. Duly noted.