As Modern Family winds toward the end of its sophomore season, the one question everyone is trying to answer is whether it’s getting stronger or weaker. Me, I’ve always needed incontrovertible evidence before declaring that a show is on the decline; a few bad episodes or maybe even an entire weak story arc don’t mean an irreversible downward trend. If there’s something solid in the show’s DNA, if it has actors and writers and creative folk who care about it, I figure good things are bound to happen sooner or later.
And “Good Cop Bad Dog” is a great example of the kind of episode that looks different depending on whether you’re a half-empty or half-full kind of critic. There were flashes of brilliance in this half hour that were equally due to the situations set up by the writers and to the talents of the cast — flashes that were even better if you’re a fan because of the way they build on subtle strengths we’ve come to appreciate in this show. But the pacing of the overall show never came together, partially I think because all three storylines were about a kind of stasis — people stuck somewhere and waiting impatiently to be released. For some, the failure of the episode to achieve the kind of relentless ensemble kineticism that we see in the show’s best moments means it’s a symptom of decline. For me, a show that can still make me burst out laughing when Gloria yells “Handbags! Vacation! A home gym!” is a show that’s still got it.
Weakest of the three plots is the one that sticks Cam, potentially (although not lately) one of Modern Family’s most potent comic characters, sick in bed and asks Mitchell to leave him behind for a Lady Gaga concert. (“It’s the one gay cliche I allow myself,” the latter asserts in a formidable moment of self-delusion.) There’s a classic comic moment buried in there — the one where one member of a couple tries to get the other to come to the right conclusion without telegraphing the coercion. “We could sell the tickets online,” Mitchell muses in his list of options, “but there’s that Craigslist killer … what to do, what to do?” Otherwise, however, it’s a story about the two being obstacles to each other, and besides a nifty (repeated) flashback showing how Cam carries Mitchell around when the tables are turned, there’s not as much warmth here as is needed to make these characters really sing.
Better — ironically, because of a guest performance — is the storyline where Gloria brings home a would-be entrepreneur so Jay can mentor him. Guillermo’s pitch for his dog training system is a little masterpiece that would not be out of place in a Bob and Ray routine. “Are you aware that last year Americans spent forty billion dollars on dog training?” he begins; “That’s not true,” Jay deadpans, but the momentum of the pitch won’t be denied. Guillermo’s system involves giving the dog a bad doggie treat when it’s bad and a good doggie treat when it’s good. “The bad doggie treat is very bland,” he explains, and then when the dog turns up its nose at the bacon-infused good treat, “It’s still full from the bad doggie treat.”
Even better, you knew when you saw how expressively adorable that dog was that it wasn’t going to be making just a cameo appearance. Sure enough, Jay can’t bear to return the dog to the bad part of town where its owner lives, and brings it back to be a permanent fixture in the Pritchett household. I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of that dog.
Best of all, because of the reactions of the kids, is the storyline where Claire switches parenting roles with Phil so she can be the fun loving parent for a change, and he can be the disciplinarian. “I’m taking you go-karting!” she enthuses to Luke and Manny; “Why? Are we in trouble?” Luke asks nervously. Claire determined to have fun is indeed a frightening force; she runs her progeny into the tire wall, dares them to chug junk food, and then suggests roller coasters. Phil, on the other hand, is so devastated when the girls try to get out of the bathroom-cleaning chore he’s assigned them that he turns into a prison guard, denying them food and duct-taping their laptops shut. It’s Haley and Alex’s pitiful fear and Luke and Manny’s anxiousness that make this generic personality-swap plot work like gangbusters. When Claire mocks Manny for trying to order skinless grilled chicken at the grease pit, then pushes milkshakes on everyone, Luke comments that he didn’t want a milkshake but wasn’t about to object after seeing what she’d done to Manny. Later, as Luke moans in intestinal distress in the car, Manny observes, “Maybe it was the pie.”
In almost any given episode of a really good show — all of them except the very best outings — there’s something missing. You can focus on that and decide that the show is failing. Or you can look at what it continues to do right, and wait for the next time it all comes together exactly as you know it still can.
- Many thanks to Joshua Alston for proving a second opinion last week. I’ve been chuckling about his line about words that haven’t really been spoken until Sofia Vergara says them for a week now — well said. And I’m glad he got such a juicy episode to tackle. “Mother’s Day” was a delight.
- “I’m 12! I need limits!”