Man, I tell you. It’s getting pretty difficult to grade Modern Family week to week.
It isn’t hard to watch, unless I’m comparing it to the show in its prime, a habit that’s nearly impossible to break, but one that must be broken if I’m going to continue watching it. But with an episode like “iSpy,” which is, above all things, very, very boring, it’s hard to determine its relative quality. It’s still such a well-acted show, and I find myself admiring the performances even when the material is falling down, but this episode was flat all the way around.
It was penned by the rather handsome Abraham Higginbotham, whose episodes are usually reliable, but “iSpy” was a disappointing exception. What made the episode most frustrating is that sprinkled throughout its trio of wispy, half-formed stories, there were some decent jokes. It’s beginning to feel like Modern Family will usually make the audience choose between engaging storytelling and well-crafted jokes. It can walk. It can chew gum. But for God’s sake, don’t ask it to do both at once.
Like many episodes this season, “iSpy” is built around a loose thematic idea, though it was a bit harder to pin down in this episode, aside from the fact that each story revolves around the withholding of a secret.
Manny and Luke are skulking about with some dude named Xander, while Haley is furtive about a photography event, which naturally puts Claire into sleuth mode, dragging Phil along as her reluctant accomplice. Jay is hiding a loan to a female friend from Gloria, who is convinced he’s been dreaming about another woman. Meanwhile, Mitchell tries to refrain from telling a salivating Cam the latest hilarious drama involving their friend Brett, who has new calf implants.
Storywise, the episode watches much like that paragraph reads: like it was built from ideas from years-old index cards someone found behind a bookshelf in the writers' room.
The Jay and Gloria stuff was definitely the weakest of all, since it was obvious from the moment Jay is shown tossing in bed moaning “Oh baby” that he isn’t dreaming about another woman. And even if he was, given how the writers have gone out of their way over the years to make Gloria’s physical beauty and the effect it has on others a load bearing element of the show, I’m not sure why Gloria’s insecurity about a dream is plausible for the character, or interesting to the audience.
And, at the risk of injecting too much logic into this, Gloria says she knows Jay’s not dreaming about her because he knows how much she hates to be called baby. Which y’know, is the sort of thought process someone applies to their behavior in a dream. It was a goofy story all around, and the reveal that Jay was actually dreaming about the dog didn’t redeem it. Let’s just move on.
Mitchell and Cam didn’t fare much better, since there really wasn’t an outcome to get invested in. What again were the stakes involved in Mitchell telling Cam about Brett’s calf implants? What difference does it make, especially considering neither Mitchell nor Cam appear to like Brett all that much?
That brings me to the portion of the Modern Family review in which I take issue with the Mitchell and Cam stuff. Modern Family likes to play with the idea of their lives as a gay couple, which, because they are the least sexually charged couple on the show, if not in the entirety of the television medium, their identities as gay men are reflected primarily through their friendships with other gay men. And I get that it’s funny to play with the idea of gay men as sharp-clawed kitties who are fueled by their secret hatred of their closest friends. But the less funny truth is, most gay men have actual friends that they actually like.
Also, most gay men are affectionate with their significant others, and Mitchell and Cam, even running up to their wedding, have never been more chaste. Ancient Jay is constantly chasing Gloria around the house trying to tackle her, Phil and Claire are moonlighting as Clive and Julianna, and Mitchell and Cam are…talking about some dude’s hilarious calf implants? Throw me a bone here. It’s funny now to think about all the to-do surrounding “The Kiss,” given how meaningless that gesture turned out to be. I don’t need Mitch and Cam to kiss on screen, but I do need them to act like they are kissing off-screen.
The Dunphys had the best material by far. Again, it wasn’t particularly inventive storywise, with Claire and Phil conspiring to find out what their kids were up to, but there were enough solid jokes that the story worked even as it didn’t. The cold open was actually pretty promising (Alex’s feigned horror over Xander’s stoner brother’s attention in particular,) and the jokes were paced well enough that my attention didn’t wane.
Weeks like this make it really difficult to remember I’m watching a four-time Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy winner.
- Phil, in response to Claire’s brownie pan nagging: “Well maybe I forgot to spray it first and I’m letting it soak, woman!”
- I really want to see VamParkour.
- And later, Phil and Claire squabbling over the spycopter: “You used it to film yourself making sand angels at the beach.” “For my ‘Phil Dunphy Will Get You A Great Deal On A Beach House’ video.” Those two cleaned up this week.
- Trophy Wife had a much better “Parents make a fake Facebook profile” joke, but the name Margeaux LaCroix made me laugh.
- The tag with photos from Haley's photo project was rather sweet.