This episode almost plays like a challenge: Break up the ensemble into random pairs, perhaps by drawing out of a hat, and create comedy out of something that might happen to those pairs. One can imagine a stronger show finding some unexpected storylines and laughs by shuffling its natural couples around. Unfortunately, all that needs to be said about the outcome where Modern Family is concerned is that the best pairing is Phil Dunphy left on his own for the weekend.
Phil gets his bachelor time because Claire is taking Alex to an academic competition, some sort of unspecified bee (the questions all seem to have an historical bent). She brings along Luke and Manny to enjoy the waterpark attached to the hotel, but Manny gets all starry-eyed when a girl in the lobby smiles at him, and drags Luke along on a quest through the three separate bar mitzvahs happening simultaneously in various ballrooms to find her. This turns into an excuse to have Luke spout various Yiddishisms, which is humorous enough. “I picked up some expressions at the latke station,” he explains his newfound vocabulary to Manny. “P.S.? They’re hashbrowns.” But despite a nifty visual gag where a sea of girls in red dresses parts in front of Manny as he advances toward his dream (at the third and final party, of course), the story feels like merely an excuse to chuck these fishes into some strange waters. I can imagine Manny expressing some real and affecting yearning, even angst, in a situation like this, but not here; it’s all business, no heart.
There’s a bit more at stake as Claire confidently buys the “two day” cushion for the competition, explaining to another mother how last year she made the foolish choice of the cheaper “one day” version and had to buy another when Alex ended up going all the way. And at the same time, behind her monologue, the moderator is asking who wrote the 95 theses, and Alex is getting buzzed off the stage for answering “John Calvin.” Even though Claire had professed to the confessional that she wanted the competition to end quickly so she’d be free to ride a particularly awesome waterslide (“I’m Phil!” she exclaims in horror after hearing herself rattle off its features, which include a radar gun at the splash pool), she finds it hard to accept Alex’s steep dive from returning champion to first-round cannon fodder. While she tries to explain why she feels so strongly about it, Alex mournfully provides the right answers to the questions being posed on stage. In the best comic idea of the episode, a buzzer then faintly sounds, followed by the voice of the moderator providing the same answer to the unsuccessful competitor.
Back at home, the odd couples are Cam and Gloria (going out to lunch to cover for the installation of Cam’s awesome gift for the nursery), and Jay and Mitchell (going to pick up the crib at the big-box store). Cam’s attempts to distract Gloria until the workmen exit the house are pretty standard issue, both for the venerable trope of sitcom characters trying to keep other characters from seeing things, and for Cam’s usual habit of trotting out his farm upbringing whenever a monologue is called for. And even the surprise is a repeat—a Pritchett version of the clouds-and-drapery family mural that adorns Lily’s bedroom. But it’s Jay and Mitchell’s trip to the baby store that is the strangest and least funny of them all, and as much as I hate to say it, it’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s fault. Given a lengthy series of confessionals in which Mitchell discusses how he’s not going to set himself up for abuse by showing concern for his dad’s distracted, troubled demeanor, Ferguson goes histrionic, complete with folksy accent and much eye-rolling. A plotline with lots of promise (Ed O’Neill reluctantly hugging a giant bunny, c’mon!) becomes well-nigh unbearable because the dynamic between the two of them is so broadly played, so lacking in nuance, and so devoid of surprise.
And then there’s Phil, making a connection with Dave (Matthew Broderick) at Cam’s gym and inviting him back home to watch a football game, in an encounter that Dave interprets as a gay pickup, an impression confirmed by Cam on the phone who advises Dave to go for the gusto. I don’t love everything about this storyline; for example, the simple farce of Broderick sliding over on the couch only to retreat when Phils says “time out” in reference to the game is emblematic of the gags in this storyline that went on a bit too long. But boy, do I love the way Phil frowns and pokes at his iPad when he accidentally triggers the house’s “makeout” setting, complete with fireplace, lowered lights, and smooth jazz. And Broderick underplays in a way that’s quite lovely, portraying a person who’s been out of the game and is unsure he knows the rules of seduction. “I brought spinach dip; I don’t know why,” he stammers at Phil’s door; “I know why: Because it’s delicious, and you’re an awesome guest!” Phil answers with his usual obtuse sincerity.
In an episode where everything plays out pretty much as expected, the ending of Phil’s storyline proves exceptionally beautiful. The writers allow Dave to get the affirmation he needs from Phil without triggering a cliched gay panic, and Phil is left to make whatever he likes of the sweet, shirtless kiss Dave gives him as they part. On up the stairs to the bedroom with the pitcher of margaritas he goes, confused but otherwise none the wiser. As awesome as Phil has been this season, he deserves to be let off the hook with his illusions gloriously intact.
- “I am—not too bright! I am—dim!” Phil interrupts himself with futile instructions to his iPad-controlled lighting system of the future, while on the phone to Claire in the car. “Promise me you’ll go outside and play,” she begs him.
- Manny overdramatizes the smile he gets from the dream girl in the lobby: “I feel like my whole life has led to this moment!” “You made a very similar speech to get my mom to stop for those churros,” Luke observes.
- Phil assures Dave that his wife is fine with the occasional boys’ night, “as long as I clean up afterward.”
- At first I hated Cam’s response to Gloria’s statement that the baby’s kicks meant he would be either a football player or a chorus-line dancer: “My senior year, I was a right-side linebacker and a left-side can-can dancer in Gigi.” But then it turned awesome when Mitchell set up the meta-joke by observing how long Cam must have been waiting to get a set-up like that. “When it came out of her mouth, I almost stopped breathing,” he confesses.