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Modern Family: “Send Out The Clowns”

Illustration for article titled iModern Family/i: “Send Out The Clowns”
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Clown humor. It’s a tricky thing. I know it’s a grand tradition of folklore and nomadic entertainment and pantomime heritage, but I don’t think I’m alone in regarding clowns less as funny than as vaguely impressive in their commitment to an arcane aesthetic. Now humor about clowns can be hilarious. Put clowns into some situation where their world intersects with mine, and I’m howling. Examples from tonight’s clownish storyline include the sad descending note of the slide whistle as Professor Ringmaster’s coffin is lowered into the grave, and the clowns all going to have drinks in a Mini Cooper. (“I’ll go with the guys,” Cameron tells Mitchell after the ceremony; “In that tiny car?” Mitchell exclaims, ever the inadvertent straight man.)

But the reunion of Cameron’s old clown persona Fizbo with his former partner Lewis (Bobby Cannavale of stage, screen, and a lot more multi-episode arcs on procedurals than you might expect) is meant to be precipitated by the half-drunken performance they put on after that night of drinking, for Lily in Cam and Mitchell’s kitchen. And that juggling and pratfalling and spit-taking didn’t make me laugh. I think that’s a weakness in an episode during which we’re supposed to sympathize with Cam’s desire to resurrect his clown side; why else would Lily and all the other child who see the act laugh like maniacs?

At least Fizbo and Lewis have some flair and gravitas. (Not when their stage is falling down around them at the birthday party where they clown-fight, but then again, that’s the kind of clown humor I find funny.) The other big guest star in tonight’s episode, Ellen Barkin as Mitzi Roth, predatory real estate agent (“I call her Nightmare on Elm Street, because she sold a lot of houses on Elm Street”), gets stuck in a storyline that seems like it should have twice as much room to breathe. Phil gets ready to snag a great listing, Mitzi plays dirty to steal it from him, and after only one failed cunning scheme (getting Mitzi to admit to her subterfuge on Luke’s spy pen), Phil and Luke execute a successful crazy caper (having Luke cry crocodile tears about his family’s dire financial straights) and win the day.

To do that storyline right, you need multiple points of escalation. Barkin does a great slip-and-fall into a bush, but that’s about all we see of her egregious breaches of ethics. Imagine what Phil would do if he were spiraling down a slide of ever more desperate ploys and getting foiled by Mitzi at every turn. Instead, because we have to get in two paper-thin plotlines (Jay and Gloria are trying to help Manny make a popular friend until they find out said friend just wants to ogle Gloria’s breasts, and Claire tries to get her daughters to friend her on Facebook), Phil’s victory over Mitzi comes with only the briefest detour into the area where that storyline could actually, you know, generate humor.

I’ve been out of this reviewer’s chair for six weeks (because of my ABC affiliate’s pre-empting Wednesday night programming for the SEC Network’s slate of college basketball games). During that time, as Meredith Blake so capably documented, Modern Family delivered some solid episodes that demonstrate its continuing connection to the comic fundamentals with which it began. Its weakness, though, is also its strength — the tripartite ensemble format. We’ve said it before, and we’ll no doubt be saying it again: Having to find a story for each branch of the family each and every week seems like it straitjackets the writers more than it frees them. When everything comes together, the accumulation of character detail can be sublime. When the nods are perfunctory, or when, as in this week’s episode, a story with great potential doesn’t have a chance because the Pritchetts need screen time … well, maybe it’s like clown humor. I can appreciate the conventions in which the show must work, but I don’t find them very funny.

Stray observations:

  • Funniest moment of the night: It’s a tie between Jay’s dog perking up when Jay exclaims “Griffin Cooper?!”, and the reveal that Phil showed up in the cereal aisle sharing free jellybeans because he bumped the Jelly Belly display on the endcap while he was hiding and released a bunch of jellybeans.
  • I appreciate that Cameron calls Mitchell out on his constant eyerolling, especially when he’s caught mid-eyeroll.
  • Another nifty bit of clown-in-real-life juxtaposition: Cameron empties his grocery bag of props by taking out giant toothbrush, giant hot dog, and several feet of novelty pole.
  • “Got you!” Lewis chortles when Mitchell opens the book and finds that it’s on fire. “No, that’s exactly what I expected,” Mitchell reminds him. “Remember I told you?”
  • Alex trying to explain Facebook to her mother, who claims Adele has confirmed her friend request: “You may just be a fan of Adele.”

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