“Other People’s Children” is a Modern Family episode that makes me suspect this show has been better and more consistent than many people, myself included, give it credit for. Not because it’s a superlative episode on its own merits, but because it suggests another narrative around how the show got from where it started to where it is.

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The main thing I kept thinking during “Other People’s Children” is that it reminds me of a season-four episode of Modern Family. Not season one, or two, or three, but specifically season four. That’s when it occurred to me that if I had to rank the Modern Family seasons in order, my ranking would follow a strictly chronological path. The first season was the best, and my opinion of the show as a whole has declined a little with each passing season.

There’s a difference between actual creative decline and the feeling of torpor created by a show that has been on the air for years, and is in a position to continue for years unabated, especially when that show, like Modern Family, strives to ensure its longevity by operating within a very narrow range. It’s not as though there’s been a ton of upheaval in the upper-rungs of the writers’ room; the people who were responsible for Modern Family’s highs are also responsible for its lows. I can’t help but think, would I think more highly of this show if this was the first season I’d ever watched?

“Other People’s Children” didn’t elevate itself above many of season five’s other installments by being incredibly funny, but it did offer a pleasant blend of mostly solid jokes, interesting combinations and character development. It’s not “Fizbo” of course, but it is a lot like “Goodnight Gracie,” or even “Under Pressure” in the way it plays with the ideas of the characters and their dynamics in a way that made me feel like I was watching a much younger show.

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The combination of Mitchell, Cam, Alex, and Manny was a fascinating idea, and surprisingly well-executed given how it feels sort of inorganic, like it was born out of someone saying “I’m intent on writing a story with these four characters in it, so let me figure out what that looks like.” Sending the four of them to an art museum is a good start, and their intellectual pecking order is both a funny idea and one that gives the story a built-in structure as each of the guys peels away, leaving someone else to wear the “dunce cap.” Alex’s reveal that she had been going easy on them is a nice stinger, and the tag is quite clever. (Also, it’s the second time in a week that a haughty television character was humanized with a mustard stain, an interesting coincidence as Megan Ganz, late of Community, wrote this one.)

Claire, Gloria and Lily’s trip to the mall also clips along nicely, largely because it flicks at Claire and Jay’s dynamic, with Jay having encouraged her tomboy ways because it took him some time to identify with Mitchell. It’s also a Claire and Gloria story that isn’t predicated on the idea of Gloria being stunningly beautiful and Claire being insecure about it, a well Modern Family has tapped too often. It isn’t an incredibly funny story, but one that reminded me why I like these characters and don’t always mind hanging out with them, even if they are firing off a joke every minute.

There are equally great character moments in the Phil, Haley, and Andy story, which finally gave Adam Devine’s milquetoast manny something interesting to do. Andy has become the recurring character that, instead of making me glad to see a familiar face, makes me say “Oh yeah, this is still a thing.” But the prospect of a Haley and Andy romantic pairing is an intriguing one, especially given how the writers have approached Haley’s slow-but-steady maturation. A lot of great stuff could be mined from Haley’s resistance to Andy, especially now that Alex has revealed to Haley the very obvious reason why she might like a goofy, sensitive, earnest guy. And because I like Devine, I’m excited by the possibility of him getting more to do.

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Jay and Luke’s shop-class story is slight, but sweet, and works because it never tries to be anything more than a guy hanging out with his grandson. It was also the source of the episode’s biggest laugh for me: Luke’s interrupted rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Table Vice” slayed me.

“Other People’s Children” isn’t quite funny enough for me to say it represents Modern Family firing on all cylinders, but it is solid, and shows that these are still characters worth caring about as people, not as joke-delivery agents.

Stray observations:

  • Time to quibble: Mitch and Cam decide to let Lily wear the Belle dress because Mitch says a gay wedding is no place to tell people they can’t be who they are. Um… in a sartorial sense? This is exactly like no gay wedding I’ve ever been to.

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