I don’t have access to the production numbers of the last two episodes of this season, but I suspect they may have been swapped. From the title of last week’s episode, “See You Next Fall,” to the graduation theme, everything felt like a season ender. Why — if my otherwise groundless theory is correct — would it have been moved to the penultimate spot? To make way for an episode that closes with a more heartwarming moment.
And while I don’t think “The One That Got Away” is quite as strong top-to-bottom as last week’s terrific distillation of everything Modern Family does well, I appreciate that moment for the way it lets Ed O’Neill’s strengths take center stage. Jay has been a workhorse character throughout the series’ run, just out of the spotlight. First Phil, then Cam, then Luke and Manny, then Gloria have gotten their due as breakout roles and reliable delights. Jay has a quieter presence; his best lines are often muttered asides, and he’s taken on the function of foil to his grown children, his fiery younger wife and adolescent son, and the various in-laws, all with their conflicted feelings about him. In Season 1 he was established early on as the hub around which this extended family revolves, but lately he’s been more peripheral to the storylines.
“The One That Got Away” resembles the first season episodes “Airport 2010” and “Hawaii,” in that they derive comedy from Jay’s fondest wishes being foiled as his loved ones try to give him a great birthday. (More ammunition for my switcheroo theory: those episodes led up to the last one of the season rather than ending it, meaning at the very least that Jay’s birthday is in early to mid-May, not this late.) But look how O’Neill has perfected the character’s longsuffering (rather than explosive) reaction. All Jay wants to do on his birthday is sit in a boat with a fishing rod all alone for a few hours before the big family get-together that everyone else insists upon. His demeanor is satisfied, not gleeful; it seems he’s gotten through to the family that this is what he wants, and they’re all in support. Then as their various party-related errands fall apart one by one, forcing Jay to go to the rescue, he’s resigned and pissed rather than actively angry. In the end he claims to sacrifice what he prefers in order to make everybody else feel good about the birthday party, but that little smile on his face when he’s sitting in the pool-bound boat with Manny says differently. As much as he wants to be left alone, Jay also derives satisfaction from being that hub — from having the power to turn everyone’s night around with a gracious gesture.
In other words, none of the other hijinks — Phil trying to impress a college rival, Claire and Mitchell getting trapped in their childhood home’s backyard, Cam playing Cyrano to help Manny win a girl — would work well without Jay, whose fuse burns slow and never gets cut short. My favorite of the storylines was Phil realizing he can make the most out of being mistaken for Gloria’s husband (thanks to Lily in the stroller). Recalling a stint as a valet parking attendant, he analogizes: “One day I had to park an Aston Martin … never forgot the looks I got driving that baby down the block. Not going to put a dent in this one.” When he runs into Glenn Whipple, “captain of the cheer squad, winner of every robot battle,” he finally has the chance to one-up that smug track-suited bastard by showing him what kind of trophy wife he landed. Then Glenn expresses surprise that Phil didn’t end up with Claire — Glenn’s dream girl, as it turns out. Cue Gloria yelling “Pheeel!”from the store’s dressing room. “What now?!” Phil snaps, his pride at having a bombshell on his arm having turned to old-married-couple irritation in a split-second.
The only reason Phil’s rivalry with Glenn (played by the suddenly ubiquitous Rob Huebel of Children’s Hospital, who had a hilarious guest spot on Happy Endings recently) beats out the Cam/Manny plotline is the brevity of the latter. But Cam had the laugh-out-loud moment of the episode as he feeds Manny love lines over the phone while standing in line to pick up Jay’s cake at the bakery: “You are the prettiest, smartest, funniest girl in the sixth grade. I know you’re only eleven, but I can’t stop thinking about you. I’ve loved talking to you online; I think we should become boyfriend and girlfriend.” “How do you get kicked out of a bakery?” Jay asks incredulously when Cam rings him for an assist in acquiring his own birthday cake. (“Well, that’ll do it,” he muses upon hearing the explanation.)
I cringe when Claire and Mitchell get together, because they both have the potential to become screechy sticks. But their adventure getting treed by a vicious dog, having their car towed, and calling Jay to rescue them was worth it for Mitchell’s half-soused question about whether Manny will get “a third” as an equal heir with the two of them (“That seems fair,” Claire reasons; “Does it?” Mitchell wonders), and for their reversion to resentful kids in Jay’s backseat (“At least we got to have a dog for a few minutes,” Mitchell mutters).
“Twelve times a year I get sausages. That’s it,” Jay complains to them, an artful and very funny callback to his discussion of his Sausage-of-the-Month club with Gloria earlier in the episode (“No offense, they almost lost me last month with that chorizo”), which also functions as the moment when we realize how he distracted the dog long enough for Claire and Mitchell to escape. “What am I going to do until June?” That’s the brilliance of this character, and of the way O’Neill has found to play him. I never watched Married … With Children, but the impression I got of Al Bundy was never one of understatement. One of the beautiful moments in show business is when a great comedian previously confined to one iconic role emerges with new shades of performance in a role that allows for redefinition and renewed appreciation.
- Two more great Jay moments: When the dog groomer calls back on Jay’s phone after Jay suggested that Gloria inadvertently switched them, he puts her in her place: “Yeah, I did blame her for no reason. You’ve got a little attitude, you know that? You know who did your job in my day? A hose.” And as he fails to enjoy his birthday party, leaving the table multiple times to check on women’s basketball scores: “Sparks are up by eight, if anybody cares.”
- Manny has only used his baseball mitt once, and it was to take a torte out of the oven.
- Claire uses a nifty trick to jar the wine cork loose, putting one of Mitchell’s shoes over the bottom of the bottle and hitting it against the treehouse beam.
- There’s another minor storyline with Alex and Haley’s gift of a video of family members sharing memories of Jay, that pays off with what turn out to be unseen moments in this season’s episodes: Haley dressed up for Halloween (“Halloween”), Gloria yelling about the neighbor’s dog (“Unplugged”), Mitchell practicing for the flash mob (“Manny Get Your Gun”), Phil heading out for role-playing with Claire (“Bixby’s Back”), Cam applying Fizbo makeup (“Princess Party”), Claire putting out signs (“Slow Down Your Neighbors”), and Luke wearing an astronaut helmet (“Chirp”). Hm, no Manny clips?
- The only thing Phil could beat Glenn at was close-up magic, which he tries to demonstrate by pulling a quarter from behind Glenn’s ear: “Surprised? Or mystified? Dammit, it went down your shirt. Keep it.”
- Gloria gets Jay a phone shaped like a pair of lips. Because Jay’s been talking about taking up the saxophone.
- When Gloria is looking in the drawer for candles, she seems to be finding both baby cheeses and baby Jesus.
- “Our gift is a fuller version of that, and a card.”