One of the things that’s always bothered me, ever so slightly, about Modern Family, is the social vacuum in which the extended Dunphy-Pritchett clan appear to live. They’re awfully tight with each other—you might even say a little too tight—but we rarely see them interacting with anyone outside their family. Yes, this series is called Modern Family and not Modern Social Milieu, but it’s an oversight that always rings false to me, highlighting the show’s weirdly ersatz quality. Don’t these people have any friends, or were they just hatched in sitcom lab somewhere?
Consider tonight’s episode, “Little Bo Bleep,” which culminates in a wedding attended by the entire extended family. Even little Lily is participating as a flower girl, for which she's wearing a royal blue, light-up ensemble straight out of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Cameron and Mitchell's evident disdain for the dress is outweighed, if only slightly, by their anxiety over Lily’s new F-bomb habit. The family really seems to care about this ceremony, yet we never learn who is actually getting married—a friend? relative? co-worker? When the bride walks down the aisle wearing her very own light-up gown, the family stares in slack-jawed amazement, as if they were watching a stranger's tacky wedding on TLC.
This may seem like a minor quibble, but it points to a nagging problem on the show. At its weakest moments, Modern Family relies too heavily on elaborate sight gags (light-up dresses!) instead of comedy that’s grounded in believable, fully realized relationships. In the end, the wedding is a total throwaway, nothing but a forum for Lily’s inevitable expletive-laden tantrum and some tacky outfits; the bride and groom are not family friends, but mere bystanders used for an easy punchline. No one is really invested in the wedding, so it all just feels like a cheap gag. Heck, even the part that should be funny—Lily’s cursing—falls flat. I can't be sure why. Maybe it’s because we all knew it was coming, or maybe it’s because the bleeping thing has long since become a sitcom cliché, or maybe it’s because the new actress who plays Lily is, well, just a 5-year-old (I may be alone in this, but I much preferred mute, deadpan Lily to Uncanny Lily).
The wedding is a gimmicky disaster, but there’s enough in “Little Bo Bleep” to save it from complete oblivion. Claire is moving forward with her campaign for town council, and a poll in the local paper indicates that voters find her unlikable. (I know, I was shocked too.) The Dunphys come together to prepare Claire for her upcoming debate and rein in some of her more irritating habits (the pointing, the ponytail-tossing, the eye-rolling). Yes, it’s the umpteenth version of the Claire-is-awfully-high-strung thing, but the mock debate, complete with microphones fashioned out of a loofah and a hairbrush, is a small gem, the kind of chaotic-yet- perfectly-synchronized scene Modern Family often does so well.
To the surprise of exactly no one, the real debate is a disaster for Claire, though not because of her hyperactive body language. Her opponent, feckless puggle breeder Duane Bailey (David Cross at his smarmy best), interrogates Claire about Phil’s Valentine’s Day arrest (a nice callback to last year’s “Bixby’s Back!”). Phil leaps to his wife’s defense—“I, like a lot of men in this town, enjoy making love to my wife”—but only succeeds in turning himself into a auto-tune, viral sensation.
Rounding out the episode is an amusing C-plot revolving around Stella, Jay and Gloria’s painfully adorably French bulldog, who’s recently taken to jumping in the pool even though she can’t swim. Jay insists it’s time Stella take some swimming lessons (do those even exist for dogs?). This irritates Gloria, who reminds Jay he taught Manny to swim by simply throwing him into the pool. Jay becomes convinced that Stella, rejected by Gloria, has now become suicidal.
Eventually, Gloria proves her love by plunging into the pool, while dressed to the nines in a floor-length formal gown and full make-up, to save Stella. “You still have so much left to smell,” she pleads. Jay arrives on the scene and orders Manny, “Get her a towel, she’s shaking like a leaf.” The punchline—Manny puts the towel on Stella, not Gloria—was predictable, but it still worked like a charm. This is exactly what Modern Family is good at: taking hoary old sitcom clichés and breathing new life into them. The light-up dresses are best left to the folks on basic cable.
- Alex has been on a mean streak lately, so I appreciated the nice words she shared with Claire just before the debate. “Unlikable. That’s just the word men use for powerful women because they feel threatened.
- “The mainstream media doesn’t report on it because it’s not as sexy as feline AIDS.”
- “This is my new favorite show.”