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Modern Family: “The Cold”

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Modern Family’s inconsistency used to confound me, but an article I recently read on one of the Hollywood trade sites offered some interesting context. The anonymously sourced scuttlebutt is Modern Family co-creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd have a working relationship so dysfunctional that the show has become a larger, more lucrative version of that adorable thing where feuding siblings run masking tape down the center of their shared bedroom to symbolize their mutual frustration. According to the rumor mill, the pair doesn’t work together at all, and instead they alternate showrunner duties each episode, with one shepherding even-numbered episodes while the other works on the odds.

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I haven’t yet figured out enough of the nuances to say with certainty whether Levitan or Lloyd is on duty from week to week, but the context makes for a much more fascinating explanation for Modern Family’s spottiness than “This is a show that was once really good but has since run out of ideas.” Perhaps it’s actually a case of Modern Family not being one show, but two shows, run by two men whose sensibilities—comedic or otherwise—are so disparate they can’t be bothered to work together. If true, the Modern Family writers’ room has a family dynamic far more absorbing than what ends up on the screen most week.

“The Cold” brought this to mind because it’s right about on par with “The Long Honeymoon,” and a major improvement over “Do Not Push,” which had a distinctly different rhythm. If I was forced to guess who ran point on “The Cold,” I’d go with Lloyd, who appears to view Modern Family less as a family sitcom than as a sitcom about characters who happen to be related. And that’s for the best, because treating the characters as free agents simply yields more laughs than keeping them under their own roofs.

The intrafamily storytelling of an episode like “Do Not Push” is great for nuanced moments about the ebbs and flows of relationships between husbands and wives, between siblings and between parents and children. But in the sixth season of a sitcom, those types of stories don’t make for the funniest episodes. That isn’t to say Modern Family has to be a laugh riot in every scene—the emotional turns in “Under Pressure” and “Message Received” were surprisingly effective—but when the show is going for laughs in a “Claire is getting on Alex’s nerves” story, there’s an ever-shrinking target to hit.

There’s more variety in “The Cold,” which starts a bit slow but hustles in its second and third acts. It’s also built on a theme, one which is not particularly observant, but makes “The Cold” nicely cohesive. Nearly every member of the family is killing themselves to look good for everyone else. Phil is trying to edit Mitch and Cam’s wedding video to conceal a sneeze that gave rise to a family health epidemic. Claire, the latest victim of said scourge, is trying to look like Jay’s “super-tough supergirl” to borrow Mitch’s parlance. Not that he should talk, as he’s back to trying to make Lily look smarter than other children like back in “The Bicycle Thief.”

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Depending on how they’re executed, the episodes that funnel all the stories into one family dinner or surprise party can work well or come off forced. The dinner and viewing party at the end of “The Cold” was somewhere in between winning and forced, but because it was the culmination of plots that worked pretty well on their own, it came together gracefully.

“The Cold” also provided some nice, if predictable movement in the slow-burning Andy and Haley romance. Part of me wishes there was another way to do the gradual build of a romantic relationship between an unlikely pair, but if this is the only way to do it, Modern Family is doing it pretty well. That kiss destroyed Haley. It destroyed her.

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Stray observations:

  • I laughed hardest when Mitch made Lily’s gifted-and-talented playdate cry. “Forget I said that.” “I can’t, I have a photographic memory!”
  • Second runner-up goes to Cam, benched at dinner. “Is there a sauce going around, or…?”
  • Haley: “With great hotness comes great responsibility.” Oof, don’t I know it.
  • “The Bicycle Thief” is among my all-time favorites. I need to watch it again.
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