Ed O'Neill, Ty Burrell

Modern Family has no business being as good as it is. Sitcoms are expected to go stale, retread old jokes, jump the shark, and then die an overdue death. As Gwen has pointed out, Modern Family is on a tear of superb episodes lately, starting with the anti-Luddite ode, “Connection Lost.” What makes this family different from others is the depth and heart the characters possess. The Dunphys et al. are more like, well, a real family. And that makes their schtick last longer.

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“Grill, Interrupted” centers less around a grill and more around expectations. Phil is over-the-moon excited to give Jay a new fancy grill for his birthday. But when Jay pulls up in a beautiful new Thunderbird, it’s obvious the excitement is going to be one-sided. I like how this episode’s A, B, C, and D stories take place simultaneously at Jay’s house over one afternoon. It is odd to think how revolutionary this concept was when Seinfeld did it in a Chinese restaurant, but the confined space gives “Grill, Interrupted” a welcome propulsion. It’s chaotic and busy, but it isn’t boring.

Jay doesn’t care much for the grill and there are some great physical bits as Phil attempts to light the thing and then activates the rotisserie feature, which sprays chicken everywhere (the pot lid as a shield was a nice touch). Like Charlie Brown and the football, Phil’s kind gesture yet again goes unappreciated by Jay, who in a wonderful cutaway shot is asleep in a pool chair bedecked with paper crown—a perfect summation of his character.

Before arriving at Jay’s, Cam and Mitchell celebrate some additional income that comes via the death of Cam’s uncle (may he rest in peace, whatever his name is). The scene plays well, because it gets right the way couples often make decisions: one spouse suggesting, confirming, and convincing the other. Here Mitchell leads Cam to agree on buying the upstairs apartment. Modern Family uses its longevity to its advantage here. Cam’s penchant for reckless spending is well-known so during the entire conversation about the apartment, the audience waits for the other shoe to drop. Or the two mink coats, in this case.

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At Jay’s birthday, Mitchell and Claire wind through a wonderful conversation about how neither were rebellious as children nor, they admit, as adults. The conversation, filled with jokes, ends in mutual, if reluctant, agreement to pay Jay back for the down payment he provided for both of them. They expected, of course, that he would refuse. He did not. Modern Family weaves plot into unlikely places, helping it keep in fresh.

Alex gets into Cal Tech, a superb school, and her parents worry their reaction didn’t live up to their expectations. The audience knows Alex better than her parents do (if there’s a flaw to Modern Family, it’s the supreme ignorance some characters have toward others), and see she is actually worried about living up to everyone’s high expectations. In the emotional capstone of the episode, Jay shows Alex her family fighting in the driveway, Cam in full-length fur coat, and tells her that “the family needs a leader, and I can’t do it forever.” It’s a genuinely beautiful moment ameliorated only because it was one of four storylines happening and barely had time to play out its beats.

“Grill, Interrupted” is cluttered and the entire Luke/Manny storyline could easily be cut to give the other storylines a space to breathe. In yet another storyline (but a more fruitful one), Andy plays Jacob to Haley’s Bella as she cavorts with a suave doctor she met, of course, at her hospital visit. A bit of absurdist humor takes over as Haley and Andy accidentally end up in romantic/pseudosexual situations that the doctor walks in on, and always assumes the actual event that took place. It’s funny and it works, but it feels a bit off compared to flying chicken and fur coats. As one might expect, Andy leaves the episode with both regret and hope.

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This season proves that sitcoms can survive on solid characters and solid jokes. “Grill, Interrupted” lives up to those expectations perfectly.

References in order of appearance:

  • Harry Hamlin, star of L.A. Law
  • The Gabor sisters, namely Zsa Zsa and Eva
  • Dr. Zhivago, the 1965 film about the Russian Revolution
  • Circuit City, defunct electronics chain
  • Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano responsible for the destruction of Pompeii
  • “Heavy hangs the head,” a common misquote of a line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, “”Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

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