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The centerpiece of “Tableau Vivant” is a special art program at Alex’s school, in which the assignment is to recreate a famous painting with live people and props. This is possibly the most fascinating plot device any sitcom has deployed this season. The tableau vivant or “living picture” was a wildly popular American performance genre in the nineteenth century, often presented as civic enrichment or as domestic entertainment.  The format was exactly as shown in this episode, with the scene carefully framed by a restrictive proscenium, revealed and then after a period concealed by a curtain or slider. The school Alex attends, and the art teacher Mr. Jarvis (or “Mr. Gorgeous” as Alex Freudian-slips), must be the most astounding educational enterprises in California. Having middle-schoolers learn about American art and the history of high culture appropriations in popular entertainment simultaneously through a rigorous double re-enactment process? Breathtakingly brilliant. I’m stealing this one for my own classes.

But let’s not discount how well constructed the rest of this episode is, as meticulously put together as Alex’s familial “Freedom From Want.” In the first and second acts, everyone develops some sort of grudge against someone else in the family. Claire’s annoyed that Cam is trying to discipline LIly without using the word “no.” Manny seethes because Luke got a medal for for putting out a fire that he started. Jay thinks Gloria was insufficiently respectful to his namesake sandwich, but blunders by mentioning how frequently he refrains from commenting on how loud she is. Phil doesn’t have the courage to fire Mitchell from doing some legal work for his real estate agency, and Mitchell resents Phil for exposing him to the ridicule of the whole office. Haley … did she have a thing? I guess it was getting Cam to cover for her coming home late. Oh, and also Gloria doesn’t like that the waitress at the diner knows more about Jay’s audit than she does.

Naturally, the tableau goes horribly wrong when everyone talks through it while still trying to hold their poses, scoring whatever points they can off each other without actually moving their mouths. And then in a rather lovely denouement, everyone shows up at the diner to eat the Jay Pritchett (“Most people stop after salty bacon, but I doubled down with anchovies!” Jay reports proudly), the camera moves slowly to the foot of the table, and we have the real tableau.

One could complain about just how many conflicts are chucked into this blender of an episode. But each one is both simple enough and specific enough that it can be introduced quickly and generate a few moments of character-based comedy before becoming fuel for the big blow-up in front of the art teacher. It’s really quite elegant. Manny’s finely-tuned social sense leads him to point Luke toward the American flag and expect that it will motivate him to do the right thing. Mitchell’s feeling of being put upon by a family member asking a favor degenerates into his protestations that he’s a victim of how good he is at his job. Cam’s parenting strategy of “redirection” leaves him vulnerable when Claire uses it as an excuse not to stop Lily as she’s heading for the garbage disposal switch on her uber-annoying tour of the light switches, just when Cam’s gotten his hand stuck down the sink.

Now, due to the psychological perils of home ownership, I missed almost that entire scene where Lily was making her way inexorably toward the disposal switch, because I have a debilitating dread of hitting that switch when somebody’s hand is down there. (It’s similar to my fear of catching my children’s fingers while raising the power windows in the back seat.) But the scene at Phil’s agency when Mitchell shows up is a crackerjack piece of staging and pacing. Mitchell ends up in an elevator with the doors barely cracked while onlookers repeat the scuttlebutt that arose from him turning in work late. (“Why didn’t he take the stairs like everyone else?” “Lazy.”)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What Modern Family can do so well is create an escalating snowball of farce that, when everyone ends up in the same place, unleashes a storm of comic possibilities. This episode may not be the pinnacle of that style, but it unfolds with a sense of ease, confidence, economy, and generosity that any sitcom would be proud to match. I mean, look at that beautifully underplayed closing tableau. That’s what it’s for, after all. Just look at it.

Stray observations:

  • Luke gets a career idea from the honor he receives for putting out the fire: “Maybe that’s what I should be when I grow up—a professional medal-getter!”
  • Jay fires back at Gloria for critiquing his sandwich (“It’s like a fish and a turkey beat themselves to death with a pepper”) with a reminder that she once recommended a Columbian specialty she’d prepared with the invitation: “Try the hooves, they’re the best part!”
  • The very best family conflict that comes out during the tableau is that Phil tried to break up with a girl once but got all stress-blinky and couldn’t pull the trigger: “Twenty years later, we’re still married.”
  • How good is this episode about giving every character a moment of undivided and distinct attention? Alex critiques the tableau setup by briefly imagining how to deal with an inauthentic prop: “This spoon is modern-day, so if we use it everyone will have to react in horror to the spoon from the future.”