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Modern Family: “The Big Guns”

Julie Bowen, Fred Willard, Ty Burrell, Andrea Anders, Steve Zahn
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Modern Family is frequently lopsided in the Dunphys favor, if for no other reason than the numbers. When half the show’s ensemble resides under one roof, it’s nearly impossible to avoid making episodes so Dunphy-centric as to make it easy to forget the other characters exist until they appear on screen. That’s not always a problem, given that the Dunphys are usually the source of the show’s funniest material, but “The Big Guns” is indicative of why the show’s bias towards the Dunphys is broadly problematic.

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“The Big Guns” welcomes back the LaFontaines, who continue to irritate Phil and Claire (more the latter than the former, naturally) with their unrefined ways, this time by storing a boat emblazoned with gambling symbols in their driveway. After a charm offensive involving banana bread fails to do the trick, Phil and Claire have to resort to gamesmanship to regain the upper hand. Unfortunately, it tips the episode’s balance even further in the Dunphys’ favor.

The issue here is less to do with how one-note the LaFontaines can be—though that’s still somewhat of an issue—but that when Phil and Claire draft Frank to make a stop through the neighborhood as part of his cross-country RV tour, that’s another face card added to an already flush hand. When the family that already feels most capable of carrying the show by itself gets a story that adds Steve Zahn, Andrea Anders and Fred Willard, there isn’t a ton of oxygen left for anyone else.

Mitchell and Cam don’t fare as poorly as they could have given the circumstances, though there is a fine line between world building through callbacks and dull repetition, and while this particular Fizbo story is one Modern Family hasn’t told before, I’d be just as happy if Fizbo was retired permanently. Still, it’s a fairly funny story, if only because Eric Stonestreet gets to do some choice physical comedy. I’m not referring to the actual clown stuff, though Stonesteet still does that well, but rather Cam’s gunshy navigation of the house as he tries to avoid the hilarious abuse Lily has plan for him.

The twist was also fun, despite being telegraphed far in advance. Lily isn’t doing abusive comedy to make Mitchell laugh, but because she’s equally weirded out by clowns and would do anything to get out of spending anymore time as Lizbo. (Give them a break, they’re still working on the name.) Just as Lily has grown to inhabit the kids-say-the-darnedest-things role due to Nolan Gould’s maturation, she’s also stepped into the sociopath-in-training capacity as well. While he would have had good reason to be horrified by Lily’s ability to lie that convincingly at a moment’s notice, Mitch is proud to learn his little girl is beginning to take after him.

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As usual, the Pritchett-Delgados have the least to offer, this week trying to teach Joe how to use the toilet while Manny has a meltdown about Gloria’s exaggeration of his past as a gifted, refined baby. Jay, Gloria, and Manny almost never a great plot, but it isn’t usually quite this weak either. Not only is it light on laughs, it’s not engaging on a storytelling level either.

It’s not entirely their fault, of course, given how much energy goes into figuring out what to do with the Dunphys. “The Big Guns” never kicks into full gear because so much of its time is spent setting up a standoff between the families that peters out without ever reaching anything resembling a climax. Because the episode is structured so oddly, it seems to end abruptly because it never totally feels like it has started. The entire episode feels like a well-constructed first act, at least for the Dunphys and Pritchett-Delgados, and then it goes off.

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If the grade I gave to “The Day We Almost Died” seemed artificially inflated, “The Big Guns” demonstrates why. When the formula is flawed, it can be enough just to shuffle the values around in an interesting way, even if the outcome isn’t ideal.

Stray observations:

  • Luke and Tammy are the new Haley and Andy, by which I mean the show will have forgotten all about the pairing in a few episodes.
  • Manny was awfully bratty this week.
  • I’d watch Just The Fax, Ma’am, though it’s no VamParkour.
  • This is my last week on the Modern Family beat, but the esteemed Gwen Ihnat will take over beginning next week, which is a win. There are also rumblings of guest appearances from original ModFam reviewer Donna Bowman, but you didn’t hear that from me.
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