Modern Family can ask a lot of its audience at times, but “Haley’s 21st Birthday” asks entirely too much.
It asks you to believe Haley, of all people, would be guilted into spending her 21st birthday with her mother, uncles and grandmother. It asks you to believe Phil, after the years of indignities he’s put up with at Jay’s hand, would agree to let Jay tag along with him to negotiate the price of a car. It asks you to believe Manny and Luke would not only accept the responsibility of having the birds and bees conversation with Lily, they would lobby for the right to do so, and lash out at Alex for trying to stop them.
Modern Family can get away with a certain level of contrivance simply because its characters are so disparate. For example, a plot involving Alex, Manny, Luke and Lily is bound to require some manipulation, and such accommodations are easy to make if the final product is clever or funny enough. While “Birthday” has peppery lines sprinkled throughout, it’s tough to focus on them when they’re deployed as part of stories that never manage to make much sense.
Haley’s birthday celebration is the biggest offender, of course, beginning with Haley’s self-deprecating comments about how much of a dork she is for spending her first moments of official adulthood with her family. It’s nice to get some acknowledgment of how odd this is in Abraham Higginbotham’s script, but given what the audience knows about Haley, such a notion requires more to support it than one tossed-off expository line.
I can be a sucker for stories about mothers trying to remain emotionally close to their children as they age, so Claire’s reluctance to bow out of Haley’s escalating bonding demands is the strongest element of the story, but there’s so much clutter strewn around it. Like, when was it ever the case that Mitchell and Cam were the cool gays bachelorettes flocked to at bars? The whole point of the Sal character is that she injects some much-needed abandon into their otherwise vanilla family life. Suddenly Mitch and Cam are competing to be the coolest token gays at the straight bar? Nah, I don’t buy that.
The Phil and Jay story gets a slight pass, but only a slight one, simply because car shopping with Jay makes sense for anyone hoping Jay would lend some of his closet-maverick instincts to the negotiation. In Phil’s case, however, he’d spent weeks researching the best possible deal, and if Jay’s only function was to get Phil to the dealership, is there no one else available for that task? Perhaps someone who doesn’t have an extensive history of undermining Phil in public settings? Or maybe, I don’t know, Andy, Phil’s eager to please assistant who has entirely vanished since accepting the gig?
The less said about the “Lily learns about sex” plot the better, because the bulk of it made me itchy. The voiceover from Lily is just uncomfortable, though I’ll admit Lily’s bizarre explanation for the miracle of life got a laugh out of me based on its sheer absurdity. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few times “Birthday” is absurd in a rewarding way.
- Jay, in sniper mode: “Wiggle Darryl, wiggle.”
- Mitchell: “I can do the ‘Single Ladies’ hand thing.” Cam: “Put your neck into it, or you just look like the queen waving.”
- Cam, trying to choose a tattoo: “What should we get? It needs to be something personal to us. Is Nelson Mandela still in jail?”
- Luke: “You Americans are so uptight about sex.”