If there’s been an overarching problem with this season of Modern Family—and believe me, there are quite a few problems to choose from—it’s that there’s been an almost complete absence of emotional depth from episode to episode. The earliest seasons of Modern Family stood out from the sitcom crowd not because of the inclusion of contemporary family units, but because there was an attention paid to the inner lives of these characters. The show always put comedy first, but there was a heart in those early seasons that allowed even the worst episodes to feel in some ways rewarding. Seven seasons in though and suddenly Modern Family is struggling to keep that heart beating.

That absence of heart is more than apparent in this week’s episode, “Man Shouldn’t Lie,” which spends a lot of time clearing a path for a few emotional revelations before settling for easy punchlines in the end. It’s a frustrating experience because it goes against so much of what made the show click in those early seasons. The show didn’t trade in typical, familiar sitcom episode plots, and if it did it found a way to subvert them and create something new and interesting. This season though, the show is stuck in place, or maybe even heading backwards. There’s a weird regression going on as Modern Family moves from an occasionally inventive and often charming show to a rote, predictable, often bland sitcom.

Take, for instance, this week’s most intriguing storyline. After failing to secure a tenant for their place for weeks Cam decides to rent out the top floor to a Christian rock band, much to the chagrin of Mitchell. “So, they’re noisy and judgy” he says when Cam assures him everything will be fine because they’re nice Christian folk. As the story moves along, things get interesting. The storyline starts out exploring how Mitchell is eager to offer guidance to the drummer, who he thinks is gay. That’s a bit of misdirection though, as the kid just doesn’t want to be a drummer anymore, and so he leaves the band and Cam, of course, steps in to save the gig.

There’s some serious potential in this storyline. Mitchell and Cam are both gay men, but they have completely different life experiences. Mitchell talks about being chased into a lake by angry people who wouldn’t accept him, while Cam, the Southern country boy, insists that some of the nicest people he’s known in his life have been churchgoers. There’s an intriguing bit of conflict in these interactions. For awhile, “Man Shouldn’t Lie” seems set on exploring how there’s no single definition of the “gay experience,” and in fact, suggests that generalizing the traits, experiences and beliefs of any group of people is a misguided and sometimes harmful thing to do. So, when Mitchell joins in the pre-show prayer at the last minute it’s a nice moment because he’s reckoned with his own prejudices. Thus, it’s all the more disappointing when the first song the band plays is an anti-gay anthem that goes “man shouldn’t lie with another man.” It’s such a predictable, easy punchline, and it’s made all the more frustrating when considering the more nuanced approach that led to that moment.

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Similar problems pop up in Jay and Gloria’s storyline as well. It all starts when Jay is reluctant to meet the husband of one of Gloria’s new friends, saying that at his age he doesn’t need any more friends. Then, when it turns out that he actually likes the guy, or at least likes that he is the dentist for the L.A. Kings and can give him access to some sweet perks, he doesn’t want to admit it to Gloria because he’s Jay/a man on a sitcom. Anyways, just as with Cam and Mitchell’s look at prejudice and personal growth, “Man Shouldn’t Lie” almost finds a moment of emotional truth with Jay. When Jay’s new friend invites him on a fishing and whale-watching trip with Anze Kopitar and Wayne Gretzky, and he refuses because he doesn’t want to admit he was wrong for fear of Gloria making him try new things from now on, his new friend tells him to man up and tell the truth.

So, Jay takes his advice and eventually tells the truth. If the episode had ended there it would’ve been a satisfying ending to a story about Jay finding some new inspiration in his retirement and realizing that perhaps he isn’t right all the time. Instead, Gloria does exactly what Jay says she would do. She tells him they’re going to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner the next night and then coming home and watching a movie about women and love letters. It undercuts all the potential for personal growth that came out of the scenes before the episode’s end, a fact only cemented by the faux-subversive episode tag. Why does Modern Family consistently do this? Why does the show work towards meaningful moments and then go for the easy laugh, which often isn’t even that funny?

It really does seem like the show, as the years have gone on, has lost its way. Gone is the heart and the charm, replaced by predictable sitcom premises week after week. Some sitcoms can handle aging into something more familiar. Modern Family can’t though because the very thing that made it engaging and fresh in the first place was its ability to sidestep the familiar and instead shoot for honesty. “Man Shouldn’t Lie” doesn’t find a whole lot of honesty.

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Stray observations

  • Biggest laugh of the night for me is Claire describing the smell of Haley’s car as “the inside of Bob Marley’s laundry hamper.”
  • Modern Family has still yet to find a way to integrate Alex into each episode.
  • “It felt a little close to my Chicken Pot Pirate.”
  • “You can’t just add ‘hath’ and pretend it’s from the bible.”
  • Phil knowing who owned the dog was a nice touch.

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