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When a show is as hopelessly stuck in its ways as is Modern Family, even a slight twist on a familiar theme goes a long way toward elevating an episode. “Marco Polo” features a few light twists, making it one of the season’s fleeter installments, and yet somehow there’s still a pervasive feeling of been-here-done-that weighing it down despite its charms.

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One explanation for the torpor could be that it’s the second episode in a row to prominently feature Cam’s career as a high school football coach, which is not an element I expected would rise to such prominence. (And apparently it isn’t going away anytime soon; “Queer Eyes, Full Hearts” is the title of an upcoming episode.) Modern Family is at its strongest when its families are mingling freely, so I’m all for anything that gives the Tucker-Pritchetts and the Pritchett-Delgados an excuse to bounce off each other. But coming right on the heels of “The Cold,” it felt too soon to be returning to the football well.

To be fair, the Pritchett-Delgado had a plot largely independent of the football stuff, with Manny sweet on a new girl named Sam and the typically overprotective Gloria hovering over their make-out sessions. Father-son moments between Jay and Manny almost always work, and this was a particularly strong one as Jay comforts Manny following his first true heartbreak.

The Tucker-Pritchetts had their own thing happening as well, though it was far more football-dependent, with Cameron urging Mitchell to be more supportive of his coaching career, but secretly harboring the suspicion that Mitch might be cursed. It was another case of a story that could have worked if it hadn’t come so quickly after “The Long Honeymoon,” which featured basically the same joke with Alex ruining the Dunphys’ otherwise perfect summer, only that version of the joke was much more effective.

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The Dunphys were the lone wolves, which is never a concern because they’re the only one of the three families capable of carrying their own show. The family is stuck in a hotel due to a mold problem and Phil insists they all stay in one room, leading to the advanced-stage cabin fever one could expect from five people living in one hotel room. But Claire sneaks away to her own room, and when Phil finds out, it sets off a riff on a failing marriage that carries through the story.

Here’s that familiarity again, because this is the type of plot Modern Family does all the time with the Dunphys all the time. The kids, or relatives, or friends or neighbors or coworkers will misunderstand a comment and assume Phil and Claire are breaking up. (See: “Chirp.” Seriously, see it if you haven’t. It’s much better than this.) But the execution was charming enough to forgive the roteness of the story. I’m a bit concerned that Ty Burrell isn’t getting material worthy of his talents, but with Modern Family, that’s not a smart thread to tug at.

“Marco Polo” does illuminate the show’s seeming lack of movement even as its characters progress. Modern Family’s writers don’t approach character progression as its own endeavor, but rather as a perfunctory duty they’re forced to contend with in order to maintain the status quo. That’s why it’s always so hard to remember what everyone is supposed to be doing at any point. Had it not been for these last two episodes, I could have just as easily forgotten Cam is coaching football now, and I’ll give a shiny silver dollar to anyone who can describe Mitchell’s new job in ten seconds without a search engine.

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The hamster-wheel quality of Modern Family’s plots isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the margin for error so much more narrow. Take the eighth season of Friends for example. There were episodes during the “Joey’s in love with Rachel” arc with dramatic beats and atypical rhythms, but when the audience is invested in the characters, how their relationships progress and how it affects the relationships around them, not every episode has to be jam-packed with jokes.

Until Modern Family stops resisting forward momentum, it’ll never get back to the level of consistency it once had.

Stray observations:

  • Sam is gorgeous. Good try Manny!
  • I loved Luke and Manny’s respective pronunciations of Sex Grenade.
  • I didn’t have the mental energy to get into this deeply, but the jokes about the language barrier with the Nigerian family were awfully lazy. And it’s the type of joke about difference that feels vaguely racist or xenophobic simply because it isn’t funny. It’s kind of surprising given than while this has consistently been a complaint about the show’s treatment of Gloria’s accent, I’ve always found those jokes inoffensive because they’re usually funny.
  • I had Friends on the brain because of this. I cannot contain my excitement.

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