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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family struggles to make death meaningful

Illustration for article titled iModern Family /istruggles to make death meaningful
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“Legacy” is a very strange episode of Modern Family, and one that once again deals with a character death in a rather mystifying way. After a holiday break and last week’s solid but rather inconsequential episode, “Legacy” doesn’t exactly get back to the season’s overarching storylines, but it does introduce a new, significant moment that could have a ripple effect.

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Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. We’ll get to the big moment at the end of the episode in due time, but let’s begin with everything else in “Legacy,” all of which feels like the show simply having no idea what to do anymore. This is mostly a dull, uninspired episode that sees the show not only repeating certain storylines, but also failing to offer up much of anything in terms of comedy. There’s a few laughs here and there, but for the most part this is pure filler.

The general structure of this week’s episode involves setting up seemingly unimportant, throwaway storylines, and then at the last minute shifting them into territory that could be deemed important to the characters. Mitch and Claire sort through a bunch of childhood belongings that have been sitting in Jay’s garage and use the opportunity to hunt down clues that their old man cut a family trip short when they were younger; Phil goes to visit his father and all sorts of hijinks ensue; Manny, Gloria, and Cam cross paths as they try to give each other advice and seemingly fail spectacularly.

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These storylines are difficult to engage with through much of the episode. There’s just not a lot to connect to. The Manny plot is everything we’ve seen before, with Cam and Gloria giving him contradictory advice about how best to approach an old crush of his. Once again, Manny’s romantic exploits remain incredibly boring. Then there’s Mitch and Claire being Mitch and Claire, which means they’re intensely focused on proving their father wrong simply so they can be right, which is their favorite thing. Phil’s trip to see his father is rather harmless, but their various outlandish situations aren’t funny or endearing in any real way.

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As mentioned above though, the show eventually pulls the rug out from under these stories and offers up something more substantial in the final moments. Gloria and Cam end up helping each other out despite both of them being resistant to asking for any help; Cam plays an outlandish character to help Gloria secure her first house sale, and Gloria assists him in getting back at a fellow teacher who apparently stole an award out from under him. All of Mitch and Claire’s digging only leads them to discovering that Jay worked as a bartender for awhile, sacrificing in the early days of his business so that he could pay his employees and get his ideas off the ground. Then, of course, there’s Phil, whose seemingly innocuous day with his father ends up being his last, as the final scene shows the family gathered to honor the memory of Frank Dunphy (Fred Willard).

The moments themselves aren’t bad; in fact, they mostly land. But the structure of the episode is a problem. The idea is that by rolling out seemingly unimportant stories, those final moments hit a little harder because they’re surprising. I’d argue the opposite is true. The show is telling you to check out, to not consider what’s happening on screen to be worth fully paying attention to, which makes those final moments feel like contrived add-ons to an otherwise dull episode. I think the general message contained in Phil’s story works—the mundanity is the very reason we must try to be present, because those could be the final moments we share with someone—but everything else falls flat because of what came before. “Legacy” would have done well to lay out its steps a little more in order to give its climax a more satisfying feel.

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Stray observations

  • I’m shocked that Jay’s dog bed business isn’t doing well.
  • Manny: “11-year-old Manny would be disgusted by me.” Lily: “Now you know how 12-year-old Lily feels.” I love ruthless Lily.
  • “You need to show no emotion. Think of your cousin Lily.”
  • Fred Willard, gone just like that. Got the same treatment as Shelley Long. So strange.
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Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.

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