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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: "Fifteen Percent"

Illustration for article titled Modern Family: "Fifteen Percent"
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So my wife says to me, she says, "What I like about Modern Family is that it's flawed, and it's a little boring, and it's kind of the same thing every week, but it's just like hanging out with my real family." And I think she's on to something there, as this pretty much describes how a lot of people I know feel about the show. There's something so nice about slipping into the circles of these three families every week, to the point where they start to feel like the kinds of people you might know in real life, indeed, the kinds of people you might know in your real family. When the show's off, it does sorta feel like one of those trying times spent with your own family. But when it's on, as it was tonight, it's exactly like one of those nights when you and your family get going so much that you don't even need to say whole sentences to make each other laugh.

Tonight's episode uses the typical three-plot structure of the show, but it mixes the characters around some, and integrates two of the plots to the point where they might as well be one. And while the storylines about Jay, Mitchell and Cam and Gloria and Manny both exemplified the show at its best, I want to start off with the Dunphy storyline. It can be a little easy to think that the Dunphy stuff isn't as interesting when it's in its own little bubble, particularly as so many of the stories boil down to the sort of "Husbands are dumb, and wives are smart!" stuff that so many sitcoms have already been built around. But I liked what "Fifteen Percent" did with this storyline, even as it delved into a fairly stereotypical storyline in and of itself. Claire doesn't know how to use the AV system in the living room? Y'don't say.

Yet, at the same time, this is the kind of storyline that still rings true enough to life that it has some bite to it, and it also gives Phil one of the rare occasions when he's the smart one in the relationship, with Claire having to turn to him to figure out what's going on. It's also nice that the story turns on something the show hasn't really explored yet - the Phil and Haley relationship. It can be hard to come up with stories about fathers trying to deal with their teenage daughters (since most of them seem to deal with said fathers threatening said daughters boyfriends), but the series managed to do so here, as Claire challenges Phil to teach Haley how to use the AV system. After he gives her a pep talk about how much it would show her mom, she even gets into it and eventually figures it out. It's a sweet little story, and it plays up a relationship the show hasn't spent a lot of time on. (It also, by proxy, shows off the Claire and Haley relationship, which the show has somewhat highlighted, but not really in the sense it does here, where Haley's the one who ultimately ends up teaching Claire how to use the TV.)

The other two storylines might have seemed initially as if they would court some of the things that have gotten the series in trouble in certain episodes, like recognizable guest stars (Chazz Palminteri! Kristen Schaal!) and overly heightened storytelling. But the two storylines are helped out substantially by sending the characters into each other's lives. It makes sense that these people don't spend all of their time hanging out together, but it doesn't make sense that they don't occasionally cross paths, so seeing Cam run into Jay hanging out with his friends was the sort of thing that made sense, just as it made sense that Jay would only introduce Cam as a friend of his son.

The temptation to turn this into a storyline about how Jay has never really accepted Mitchell's homosexuality (much less Cam) must have been strong, but the series, instead, takes it in more of a direction where it embraces the idea of just how much Jay has accepted Mitchell's homosexuality. It's a nice bit of undercutting the expected storyline to have Jay eventually work himself up to a point where he's going to talk with his friend (the nicely flamboyant, but not TOO flamboyant Palminteri) about how if he's gay, Jay's OK with it (only after Mitchell insists the guy's gay, though). It's also a terrifically funny storyline, as Jay ends up having to give his friend money, Cam accidentally sets some flowers on fire after putting them in the microwave and the camera keeps cutting to Lily as though she can give us the baby reaction shots we so obviously crave. And in its showing of how Jay has embraced the diversity his life has foisted on him, the episode also nicely ties this all in to its central theme of change.

Meanwhile, Manny's met a woman online, who's coming over for the missing link between a play date and an actual date with him. Was it obvious that it was going to be an adult woman? Frankly, yes, but that it was Schaal? That made it all worthwhile. Everything from there was kind of predictable, but Schaal's energy, combined with Sofia Vergara's ability to pretty much play the hell out of any material she's handed, ended up making the whole thing really funny. (I especially liked Schaal's constant horror at how "wise beyond his years" Manny sounded and that the two met when they bonded over vampire romance fiction.) And the final gag here - Schaal thinks that she's in love with Cam - was one of the best things in the whole episode.


The episode wraps its story around the idea that people can only change "about fifteen percent," which sounds about right. But, oddly enough, the thing that makes Modern Family work - the thing that makes most families work - is the fact that the characters don't have to really change to be around each other. They're always going to be who they are, and the people in their family are going to be cool with that. And, really, that's sort of what it's like to get involved in a sitcom, especially a well-done one like this. It's all about getting to know the characters so well that you're relieved when they pretty much stay the same. It's all about always knowing what's coming and laughing all the harder at it.

Stray observations:

  • Donna is out again tonight because Arkansas loves basketball more than Julie Bowen, but she'll be back next week, hopefully.
  • I like that the movie the Dunphys apparently have on an endless loop is Breaking Away.
  • Most television shows need way more baby reaction shots. Imagine how much better True Blood would be with them!
  • "The football players were so jealous, they wouldn't even let me and my buddies - Trevor, Scottie and Ling - go to their parties."
  • "Ling is not a nerd. He built his own helicopter, and if he was alive today …"