When I saw that “The Wow Factor” was written by Ben Karlin, I may have gotten my hopes up a bit too high. Karlin, a former Onion/Daily Show/Colbert Report stalwart, was responsible for “When A Tree Falls,” a daring half hour earlier this season that subverted standard sitcom construction and deployed a series of delayed reveals that left me stunned.
There’s barely a hint of that bravado in “The Wow Factor.” In Karlin’s earlier episode, the plotlines took hairpin turns in the second and third acts, abandoning the MacGuffins they used as early hooks and emerging with completely different themes. Here, the structure is far more conventional, but it’s still possible to appreciate the meandering way the script gets around to its key setpieces, like Jay giving away his baby in the movie theater.
Nevertheless, the lack of structural ambitions mirrors the safe, comfortable vibe of the comedy in this episode. Cam acts like a drama queen, Jay tries to get out of one of Manny’s artsy father-son events, Phil gets in over his head. There’s nothing wrong with those premises in terms of their ability to generate laughs, but “The Wow Factor” doesn't care to do anything particularly interesting with them plotwise. Take the storyline involving Cam and Claire trying to get their way in their house-flipping renovation project. (Remember that? It’s still happening!) Cam runs a little game (the Trojan Horse) on Claire where he shows her an over-the-top design option, then when she balks at the cost, regretfully offers a compromise that is actually want he wanted in the first place. Claire has her own game: The Number Dump, where she rattles off percentages and square footage and budget stuff at him until he flees in terror. When Cam wants a water feature for the back yard, he brings in lesbian mom Pam (Wendi McLendon-Covey, seen earlier in “Schooled”) to bolster his viewpoint, only to be undone when Claire flaunts her feminine wiles to get Pam on her side. This is mostly farce-by-the numbers, even getting a little disturbing for my taste when Claire “accidentally” pours water on her white tank top to give Pam a free show.
But in the other three plotlines, something fascinating is happening, if not overtly in the story beats, then definitely in the cracks and interstices of the dialogue. In the Pritchett house, Jay generously volunteers to spend some time with the baby so Gloria can have some quality bonding with Manny… who then reveals that his heart’s desire (previously mentioned to Jay) was to attend a staged reading of Moby Dick. (“This is going to be four hours you’ll never forget!” Manny enthuses.) Jay finds that a day with baby Joe is no picnic, from the inconsolable crying to the sleep right before his baby class (“I think he already knows how to be a baby,” Jay quips when Gloria gives him the schedule; “I love you, but I can’t laugh at that again,” Gloria warns). Distrustful of the puppet show visible through the class windows (“I saw a hippie with a frog on his hand,” he reports later) and overconfident of Joe’s nap durations, he takes a cue from a school friend of Claire’s that happens by with her two kids, and buys a ticket for Skyfall, only to be caught by Gloria after he lets that friend take the crying baby out of the theater while he enjoys the show.
Mitch’s storyline is similarly predictable, but it’s done with a minimalism that makes it work like gangbusters as comedy, getting better and better as it goes along. After seeing that a school bully is taunting the other kids of being losers at handball (a kind I admit to being unfamiliar with, played with a red playground ball bounced against a wall; is it a kid version of real handball, or more of a game unto itself?), Mitch wants to teach this Milo a lesson. But as Lily points out, “it’s a sport,” meaning that Mitch has no shot at winning until he gets Luke to school him in the finer points of the game. Returning with his expertise, though, he draws a crowd of disapproving parent onlookers as he gives Milo a taste of his own medicine. “Cam’s going to be doing dropoffs for awhile,” he tells the confessional; “We got a letter,” Lily mournfully comments. Similarly, Phil’s attempt to teach his daughters how to fix stuff around the house (“It’s up to me to show them what a modern, self-sufficient woman looks like”) has an appealing economy. Most of it takes place in a utility closet where Phil, trying to demonstrate how to restart the water heater’s pilot light, manages to get the thing mostly disassembled before he Skypes his dad for help.
But even if Karlin doesn’t bring formalistic excitement to “The Wow Factor,” his script is chock-full of hilarious recurring gags and asides that make this an episode worth a rewind-and-rewatch in several places. Alex ineffectually wiping spilled sugar with a broom, as if she learned how to use the tool from watching cartoons: “I’m sweeping!” Jay’s memory of Claire’s school friend: “You knocked over my mailbox with your K-car.” Phil pooh-poohing his daughters’ suggestion to call a guy to fix the water heater, until in despair he sends them to the hardware store for a torque screwdriver: “There’s a guy there, he knows what it is.” “I thought there was no guy.” “There is one there!”
And these two, the best of all: “Shut up, Nathan!” the reflexive scream of Claire’s school friend at her misbehaving son, appropriated with genius timing by Jay as he responds to shushing while being dragged out of the theater. “Crupid thing!”, the frustrated cry of Phil with a mini-flashlight in his mouth as he tries to revive the water heater. Last time Karlin gave us a Modern Family script, the overall structure was the gem. Here, it’s the little moments that elevate what’s around them to something out of the ordinary.
- What did Phil say to Luke about eating things for money? “Charge the most, and people will think you’re worth it.”
- When Haley complains that she can’t reach the light bulb that’s burned out, Phil rhapsodizes, “If only there were some magical way of getting closer to the ceiling!” “Okay, now you just sound like Dylan,” Haley responds, confused.
- Another little moment: Jay can’t resist throwing in a punchline when he’s explaining to the confessional his attempts to soothe Joe. “I did the old put-the-baby-in-the-car trick, but I could still hear him out there, just kidding!”
- The handball storyline builds so beautifully that it doesn't reach its apex until the tag scene, where Luke gives Mitch inexplicable zen training: “Close your eyes, it’s okay we’re off the court… You’re never off the court!”
- Clearly I like the way this episode delights in the old-fashioned joys of those little jokes. Fred Willard provides a great one when he plays along with Phil’s thumb trick: “Oh, the old thumb—just push it back in until it makes a popping sound.”
- Phil looks forward to a future where his daughters are still dependent on his household expertise and where all his nerd dreams come true: “They’ll call me on their hologram phones and say ‘Help me dad, you’re my only hope,’ and I’ll be the happiest dad in Sector 7. Or Sector 12 if we’re doing really well.”