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Sometimes, an episode drops at the wrong time. It’s nobody’s fault, and these things can’t be predicted, but every now and then an episode of TV, or a movie, or some other form of entertainment comes along at a time when what’s happening in the real world changes our understanding of what we’re watching. Sometimes that process enriches the art, and sometimes it detracts from it. That’s not necessarily fair, but it’s reality. I mention this at the top of the review because, for me at least, there’s almost no way to separate Haley’s storyline on Modern Family tonight from today’s multiple revelations about Donald Trump’s history of sexual abuse towards young and underage women.

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To be clear: this is not Modern Family‘s fault, and it doesn’t even ruin an otherwise solid episode. It’s a case of real world events unfairly influencing an episode of television; just how much it influences your viewing is certainly personal, as there’s no moral blueprint for this kind of stuff. There’s no way the show could have known that such horrific audio evidence, coupled with multiple first-hand accounts of assault at the hands of Trump, would drop on this day. But that’s where we are. So, admittedly, I couldn’t laugh at the way Rainer Shine (Nathan Fillion) so casually dismissed any issue with him dating Haley, nor muster a chuckle when Phil and Rainer sort out their differences near the end of the episode, and I couldn’t find a way to ignore how the episode casually turns a story that should be about Haley into a story about two men finding some common ground, silencing Haley in the process. With all of that said, the storyline doesn’t really work even if we remove the context. It’s hard to really grasp just what the subplot is about, and how it fits into the character arcs of the season and the general themes of “Weathering Heights.”

To the episode’s credit, there’s a connection between all the subplots this week that keeps things running smoothly, as “Weather Heights” continues the upwards trend of this season started by last week’s solid outing. “Weathering Heights” is largely about how we establish, modify, and reckon with our sense of self. The self, and our identity, is a tricky thing. We put a lot of stock into who we are and the way we live. We present ourselves in a certain way and put a lot of spiritual value and self-confidence into those presentations. It’s the one thing we can control in an unpredictable world that looks to squash anything unique or challenging about us; it’s the one way we can try to make sense of the chaos that comes with being a messy human being. We see that with Manny, who’s struggling to define who he is in his video application to Juiliard, and Alex as she contemplates what her role is in the family when she starts losing to Luke at Scrabble, and with Lily as she tries to figure out how to navigate the new dynamic in the household now that Dwight is living there.

For Manny, he can’t quite find the words and images to represent the fact that he comes from two very different worlds: one where he’s raised by an immigrant and single parent, and the other where he’s afforded a life of privilege and opportunity. Or, as Manny deadpans when Jay tries to get him to film a patently false video in the rough area of town: “I have a Calligraphy tutor.” Eventually, he settles on displaying the truth, which is always reliable, if a little bit scary because it leaves us so vulnerable. No matter how we choose to present ourselves, usually the truth is the most compelling presentation possible. Our truth is what makes us unique, and it’s what will make Manny stand out amongst all the other applicants. That’s a story worth telling, especially for Manny, who’s often been nothing but a supporting character strapped with stale storylines one season after season another. Here, he gets a little depth and a few emotional revelations.

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Alex doesn’t get quite the same attention to detail and nuance, but there’s at least the semblance of a connecting theme. While she’s still recovering from her Mono, Luke believes this is the perfect time to finally best her at Scrabble and prove that she’s not the only smart one in the family. Eventually, Claire gets in on the ruse, and the two come close to beating her before feeling guilty about it, realizing that she puts a lot of stock into being the smart one in the family. It’s how she sees herself fitting into the mishmash that is the Dunphy household. We all need those unique traits, especially within the family unit, no matter how you define ”family unit.” So, Alex may not be the most gracious winner, and she can be pretty smug at times, but that’s part of who she is, and as Gloria tells Manny, if you lose those defining qualities you’ll lose what makes you special.

That brings us back to Haley, Phil, and their complicated relationship with Rainer. What works here is the fact that Haley is finally becoming her own person. For years she’s been nothing but the ditsy one in the family. Now, she’s forging her own path. Last week she proved she could get a startup off the ground. This week, she shows some skills as a makeup artist before Phil’s big TV premiere. Giving that kind of attention to Haley is necessary for Modern Family going forward. The show stagnated last season by largely refusing to challenge the characters and put them in difficult situations that produced lasting, effective moments. “Weather Heights” suggests that maybe that’s changing.

Still, there’s no way around the fact that the “father has to deal with his daughter dating an older man” storyline is not only played out, but largely unpleasant in general. Such a storyline is often a failure because it positions the men at the center of all the conflict. Instead of this being about how Haley is starting to assert herself as a grown woman, the logical result of her finding some confidence and success in the working world, it becomes about how Phil and Rainer can maybe still be friends. So this isn’t just about Trump and the current news affecting the way we watch TV, but rather about storytelling, and the way certain stories tend to silence the very people they should be putting front and center.

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Stray observations

  • First things first: Gloria finding herself unable to get back to her “normal” speech delivery after seeing Joe’s therapist was the best bit of comedy I’ve seen on this show in ages. Sofia Vergara is perfect in that scene. Beautiful comedic timing and delivery.
  • Manny initially tries to spoof Hamilton for his application video, only to discover that everyone else is doing the same. Gloria: “Maybe the people in New York haven’t heard of Hamilton.”
  • The name for the local weatherman awards acted as a solid punchline: “He won back-to-back Golden Showers.”
  • I’m a sucker for Modern Family pulling out that simple acoustic guitar score for the closing montage. Coupled with Manny’s video and Jay’s sweet delivery of “he’s a good kid,” I couldn’t help but get a little misty.
  • Lily has no remorse for framing Dwight: “Martha Stewart said she used the prison time to work on herself.”

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