Tonight’s highly successful episode of Modern Family is brought to you by Sofia Vergara’s huge … smile. While last week there wasn’t much zing to the way the writers dealt with conventional plots, this week the old “who will we choose to be our child’s guardian in the event of our untimely death?” competition gets resurrected by that smile. Add in the reliable zany comedy of Claire and Phil’s chaotic household (presented as a textbook example of the kind of folks you wouldn’t want taking charge of your child), and you have pretty much the exact opposite of last week. It’s professionalism, a keen eye, good timing, and an approach that rediscovers the delight in this standard situation.
There are really only three choices for Lily’s potential guardians: Claire and Phil, Jay and Gloria, and Cam’s rural Missouri relations. The Dunphy option becomes untenable after a quick but beautifully choreographed morning visit, in which Haley calls her mother the worst ever, Phil has to put out a frying pan fire twice (“Son of Jor-El! Everybody stay calm!”), Luke announces his intention to learn to juggle with knives, and Alex emerges from being locked in the garage unnoticed for half an hour (“And yet you still didn’t find the rat traps I sent you in there for!” Claire exclaims).
Cam doesn’t want the Missouri in-laws dismissed too quickly, but Mitchell is distressed by the snowshoes and “adorable” pickaxes Cam picks out to send them as gifts “to take their minds off the frozen cows.” (“So cows freeze now, are we all just accepting that?” Mitchell clarifies.) So he wants Gloria and Jay to take Lily, mostly based on how much Gloria loves her, while Cam hesitates based on the conflicts Mitchell experienced growing up with his dad — conflicts that seem to be exemplified by Jay pushing Manny to man up and get over his fear of outdoor sports so he can go on a scheduled camping trip.
It’s how much Gloria loves Lily that put the execution of this storyline over the top. When Mitchell first broaches guardianship, Gloria cuts him off: “Si si si, I take her. I can’t wait!” And for the rest of the episode, Mitchell is trying to slow down her plans to become Lily’s mother. When he reminds her that it would take a terrible tragedy for Lily to end up with her, she acquiesces: “Nothing’s going to happen. … But if it did, we would be so happeeeee!’
There’s no denying that Vergara’s broad accent really helps to sell her glee. Another factor is the direction; repeatedly Gloria grabs Lily and takes her straight toward the camera, filling the frame with her beaming smile, not a trace of any emotion but pure girlish enthusiasm for a new baby doll. She does give Mitchell and Cam second thoughts when she brings Lily back from a shopping trip with pierced ears — even causing them to entertain the idea of the Dunphy guardianship again, at least until Phil and Claire dash through the room yelling that they left Luke all alone in a parking garage. But Gloria deserves the prize just for the way she defends herself against Mitchell and Cam’s horror. She told them ahead of time she planned to take Lily to get clothes and “hair rings,” and insists, “Did you see both sides? I didn’t just do the gay ear, look!”
Just like last week, there’s nothing original about these situations. What’s wonderful is the energy, commitment, and joy that the actors and writing bring to them. That’s what Modern Family, when it’s clicking, can really do.
- I hardly even need to mention week-in, week-out MVP Luke doing his thing in the subplot where Claire takes him to a child psychologist to make sure he’s not going to grow up to be … well, Phil. “She’s the best doctor ever,” he enthuses to his parents. “I didn’t even have to take my pants off … found that one out a little late.”
- Claire takes Luke to the psychologist despite Phil’s usual habit of taking Luke to his office, where the receptionist Heather “smells like peaches” and “one time … gave me a Woody. She remembered he’s my favorite character from Toy Story.”
- The little thematic stings at the end of both the Manny and Luke plots are nicely understated, especially the way Jay reassures Manny that it doesn’t matter if he goes on the camping trip because his fears aren’t a big deal compared to the ways he’s already brave. I also like Manny’s attempts at excuses: “If I’m sick, I might get the chaperone sick, and then it’s anarchy! The buddy system falls apart, the principle of last-in first-out is ignored …” In fact, he is afraid of revealing his huskiness in the showers: “I’m pretty much at my target weight, but I haven’t quite reached my target height."
- And then at the end of that little scene in the car, Manny reaches for the radio and Jay quickly shuts him down: “I’ve got that set up just right — I told you about that before.” There’s something truly marvelous about the underplaying Ed O’Neill is making a part of this role.
- Psychologist: “Mrs. Dunphy, what exactly are you worried about?” Phil (muttering): “Get comfortable.”
- “I had them since I was two, huge ones!”