Despite the festive season and the title of “Snow Ball,” this week’s Modern Family doesn’t have much in the way of traditional holiday sitcom fare. Paper snowflakes may adorn the walls of the high school, and Gloria and Jay may be decked out in a horrific couples reindeer sweater, but there’s hardly any holiday cheer to be found. In fact, “Snow Ball” is a pretty typical episode of Modern Family, on par with much of the episodes this year that hover between forgettable and charming. That might sound like a negative place to start from, but I’d argue that finding that balance plays to the show’s strengths. At this point in the show’s run there’s hardly ever going to be a standout episode. That’s just the nature of the business; it’s difficult to keep things fresh after seven seasons.

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The episode begins with a familiar premise: Gloria, Claire, and Phil have volunteered to chaperone the school’s winter dance, organized by Manny and Luke, and Jay is a reluctant participant, once again dragged away from his scotch so that he can do something he hates. In order to get out of the commitment, he recruits Phil into a “Guys Night,” knowing all too well that Phil’s need for affection from his father-in-law trumps his love of dance (though just barely). Of course, the deal is all just a ruse, and Jay backs out immediately, telling Phil to give the women a five-minute head start before he heads home. After all, Jay has a night with a book planned, and when that book contains a crooked Sheriff character, he has no choice but to dig right in.

The “Phil really wants to connect with Jay” storyline has been done to death across seven seasons, but there’s enough charm here to warm my cold, numb-to-this-story heart. What starts out as Phil’s struggle to get Jay to agree to do anything outside of just sitting quietly and drinking scotch quickly turns into an affirmation of Phil’s identity. His constant fight to connect emotionally with Jay isn’t necessarily a symptom of Jay being his father-in-law. In fact, it’s more that Phil’s need to be secure in who he is. He needs people to understand him, to really see his silliness for what it is: a generous spirit and an outpouring of passion. That happens here, as Phil eventually convinces Jay to go to the dance, where he’s able to make his case for attending. He says he loves seeing the kids dressing up, having fun, trying to act older than they are. He sees it as a rite of passage, one perpetually linked to his own first kiss at a school dance. Jay shares his own first kiss story as well, and a real understanding takes place, at least for a moment.

The other plots don’t quite hit the same heights, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their charms. In particular, there’s an interplay between Cam and Mitchell that’s delightful. When they show up at the dance they each deal with separate issues: Cam is worried about his football team pranking him, and Mitchell has an existential crisis when he realizes that the school’s most emotionally vicious bully is gay. Their intertwining stories make for some great moments, like Cam jumping out of his skin when Mitchell approaches him from across the room, and Mitchell coming up against increasingly clever insults each time he tries to pull a little armchair psychology on the kid. Eventually, Cam dodges the prank but still feels the fulfillment that comes with being meaningful enough to his players to be pranked, and Mitchell ditches the gentle approach and teaches the bully a lesson by stuffing him in a locker.

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As those stories unfold in relatively entertaining fashion, I can’t help but wonder how Modern Family manages to never really find much spark when it comes to its guest appearances. Andy Daly reprises his role as Principal Brown—or, as we learn tonight, Principal Prince Brown—and is joined by Vanessa Bayer, who plays your typical naggy PTA mom, Marjorie. After Bayer’s character tries to get Gloria and Claire to volunteer for a phone drive, the two work together to set her up with Principal Brown in the hopes of getting her off their case. It’s not a particularly inventive plot—Claire even mentions that trying to set the two up is “a little old fashioned, but probably called for here”—but what’s worse is that it doesn’t really give Bayer and Daly much room to shine. They’re hardly allowed to play to their strengths within the confines of this story, and the result is a pretty limp comedic plot. The resolution, with Marjorie and Brown discovering a previously hidden sexual desire for one another, is perhaps the only moment where the tow guest stars find a little spark. Their quick exchanges and giddy looks sell the moment.

So, while “Snow Ball” doesn’t have all the typical holiday episode signifiers, it’s a mostly harmless, amiable episode. It wastes its guest stars, but it makes up for that by focusing on a single night, a single event, and making sure that every story intertwines with the others.

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Stray observations

  • After Manny reprimands Luke for not helping plan much of the dance, Luke says he’s been focusing on “the big picture stuff,” before a giant portrait of himself rolls by on a dolly.
  • Cam will have nothing to do with Mitchell’s anti-clown talk: “Don’t make me regret marrying outside the Big Top.”
  • “It’s sad to see a once-menacing nose tackle picking croutons out of his salad.”
  • Okay, Vanessa Bayer does get at least one solid pun: “Some people say collecting old toasters is a…crummy hobby.”
  • “You’re a good liar. You deserve to be President.”

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