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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: "Our Children, Ourselves"

Illustration for article titled iModern Family/i: Our Children, Ourselves
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Hey friends, John Teti here. Donna’s ABC affiliate is preempting the next couple months’ worth of Wednesday programming for basketball or some such, so I’ll be filling in for a little bit. Thanks for having me.

Tonight’s episode was delayed in the eastern half of the country by coverage of the Tucson shooting victims' memorial, so it’s possible that “Our Children, Ourselves” was overshadowed by the somber, moving tone of what preceded it. Or maybe it was just not a very good episode. I’m going with the latter.


The one storyline that clicks tonight is the one that revolves around Alex. (Well, it revolves around her at the beginning, but as the episode progresses, she drifts from view, as is her wont.) Claire gets worried about her little overachiever when she spots Alex exhibiting a weird facial tic while studying for a test. “It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing. I have read like a hundred articles about it,” says Claire, a line that kicks this plotline off perfectly.

Claire and Phil force Alex to stop hitting the books so damn hard, marching her outside to wobble joylessly on the trampoline for a while. Trampolines seem like they should hold some mystical power to instill joy, yet they always manage to disappoint and/or snap tendons. Still, for the Dunphy parents, it’s mission accomplished—they’ve done their part to assure that their child has a childhood, which is an admirable aim.

A few days later, though, Alex’s frustration returns in force (if it ever left). She comes home and announces that she scored second-highest in her class on the big generic test, bested by her big generic South Asian whiz-kid rival, Sanjay. But Alex is a fatalist about the whole deal. After all, what is she gonna do? Sanjay’s parents are a doctor and a professor; her parents are goofballs who make beaded comb sheaths and send remote-control camera trucks under the house. She’s doomed by her genes.

It’s probably a little weird that, instead of helping Alex with her burgeoning collapse of self-esteem, Claire and Phil’s parenting instinct here is to make it about themselves. But hey, I’ll go with it, because the payoff is a fun sequence at the movies where the Dunphys are torn between their passion for trashy B-movies and Claire’s eat-your-broccoli impulse to join Mr. and Mrs. Sanjay in some snooty French flick. We get a little of Phil being Phil (Ty Burrell can sell head-groping like no other comic actor), the Dunphys have a nice epiphany on the way out—book-smart geniuses can still be kinda dumb—and presumably Alex does some important healing off camera. Everybody wins!


Cam and Mitchell’s thread is at least connected to the supposed unifying idea of the episode—kids inheriting their parents’ traits—but in a far stupider way. While out shopping/shoplifting with Lily, the guys run into Tracy (Mary Lynn Rajskub), Mitchell’s old highschool flame.

Rajskub is great in the scene, nailing the mix of politesse and annoyance one might have in an encounter with the man who took your virginity and later swore off your gender altogether. But it’s all downhill after that initial charged exchange. Mitchell spots Tracy with a redheaded kid and concludes that it’s probably his, as he hooked up with Tracy at their ten-year reunion. Yup, he goes straight to “That’s my kid.” This is the homunculus of a premise that Modern Family shoves on stage, forcing a grin and pleading with us, “Ehh? Ehhhh?!”


After a few scenes of uninspired blubbering, Mitchell and Cam decide to pay a visit to Tracy’s home. There, they ask to meet Bobby, the little redhead Mitchell saw at the mall. “Is he…?” asks Mitchell. “Yes, he is,” replies Tracy. It goes on like this for a while, in one of those implausible scenes where everybody talks in pronouns and half-clauses. It’s like an episode from the sad twilight years of Frasier, when they had interns writing the scripts from a paint-by-number chart.

The reveal is that Bobby is a little person! They can be mistaken for children, who are also little! And across the country, alumni of Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater shook their fists at the set, crying, “Modern Family stole our bit!” Just kidding, those guys are all dead.


Modern Family typically executes mistaken-premise bits like this with so much more skill. But tonight was clearly a night to clear out bottom-of-the-barrel ideas, because the action in the Jay Pritchett household was equally disappointing, and entirely unrelated to the rest of the episode.

Jay and Gloria have to hang out with an unpleasant couple who they met on vacation. Their double-date dinner has some fantastic lines. “I love to listen. It’s my hobby,” says the male half of the Club Med zeroes, establishing his hateability in so few words.


Then, Jay lays his cards on the table, telling the other couple, look, “We’ve all tried to force a friendship that isn’t really there,” so let’s shake hands, pay our check, and never see each other again. I loved the honesty, and it’s perfect for the character. But Gloria has a point, too, when she later argues that if Jay is going to make such a strong move, he needs to make sure his wife on board, too. It’s an authentic, intelligent marital tiff.

Then Manny walks in with a dribble glass—what?—and this story is done being smart. Before long, we’re not even watching Frasier; it’s more like every episode of Three’s Company ever. After the Borings give her a thoughtful gift, Gloria decides she wants them to stay after all, so she tells them that Jay didn’t mean what he said; he’s just senile. They buy it, ’cause that guy sure is old, yuk yuk.


The next morning, Gloria frantically tries to limit Jay’s contact with the visiting couple so that they won’t catch on to her lie. Jay approaches them anyway, to apologize, and the resulting madcap exchange isn’t quite as false and stilted as the Mitchell-Tracy tête-à-tête, but it’s still pretty predictable. Finally, as Chekov said, if you weirdly have a character take a sudden interest in a wacky prop in the second act, said prop must result in hijinx by the third act. Thus Jay drinks out of Manny’s dribble glass, which makes him look old and crazy. And that’s the story of why ABC didn’t save this episode for sweeps.

Stray Observations

  • That was a pretty bad redhead wig on Bobby.
  • Cam: “Tell me all about Mitchell in high school. Did he have a beard?” Tracy: “You’re looking at her.”
  • “You don’t tell your partner you may have a baby with someone else and then go back to eating a delicious and inventive meal like it’s NOTHING!”
  • “This could be my ‘going bald’ scare all over again.”
  • There’s a precocious, business-section-reading tween bear in the Charmin toilet-paper commercials that air during Modern Family, and he’s a pretty obvious play off of Manny. Somehow, that makes this already unpleasant ad campaign even stranger.
  • “Kind of like if you combined the jaw strength of a crocodile and the ink-spraying abilities of an octopus!”
  • Line of the night: “I’m still thinking about all the Sanjays.” Good lord, I do love me some Phil.

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