Ty Burrell

“Three Turkeys” was made from a recipe that, on paper, seems like the ideal Thanksgiving installment of Modern Family. The holiday theme mandates bringing the families together, and doing so results in the entire extended family splitting off into smaller stories as they prepare to celebrate the occasion at Jay’s house. It’s a version of Modern Family that appears far too infrequently.

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There’s been much talk in television criticism circles about the “hang-out show,” the type of sitcom that’s pleasant to watch whether or not there are jokes landing with consistent frequency. The term is usually used to describe shows about young, single people (New Girl and Happy Endings come to mind) but Modern Family is so well-conceived and so populated by endearing characters, an episode like “Three Turkeys” can be as casual and approachable a portrait of a real family as any depiction of a group of fresh-faced 20-something friends.

To that extent, “Three Turkeys” worked for me, despite the small scope of the plot. The focus is on Phil and his predictably disastrous attempt to prepare his first solo Thanksgiving turkey, resulting in a spontaneous decision to relocate to Jay’s house. That plan cramps Jay & Gloria, who were hoping for a family-free staycation after their trip to Colombia fell through, but try concealing that they’re still in the country to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings about how suffocating all the family time can be.

If I was to guess whether “Turkeys” was a Steven Levitan episode or a Christopher Lloyd episode, I’d guess Lloyd because of its looser sitcom vibe allowing more random pairings. Manny’s bad habit of palming Haley’s breasts is one such example, and is the fruition of a slow-burning crush on Haley that hasn’t abated to the extent Manny would like it believe it has. But there is also a generous helping of the observational parenting humor at which Levitan most excels.

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The Dunphys are adorable all around, with Luke helping Phil in the kitchen, while Alex hangs with Claire in the garage while she secretly bastes another turkey just in case the one Phil and Luke are working on comes out looking like what one would reasonable assume a turkey prepared by Phil and Luke would look like. Phil and Luke are a go-to pairing, but this was the rare example of a Claire and Alex story that wasn’t characterized by Claire’s helicopter mom tendencies of Alex’s acid tongue. The two were able to find common ground in griping about the pressures associated with being “the sensitive one.”

The only other example of a fully fleshed-out story belongs to Mitch and Cam, who negotiate on how best to rein in Lily’s prima donna tendencies. It wasn’t a strong story for the Tucker-Pritchetts because it felt like a retread of squabbles Mitch and Cam have had a thousand times about how and why Lily views her two daddies the way she views them. Then again, it wasn’t really about Mitch and Cam having a parenting breakthrough, it was about getting them to go into Jay and Gloria’s bedroom to put on Gloria’s dresses so Jay and Gloria would have to hastily negotiate a new hiding spot.

This kind of clockwork created a frantic farcical energy reminiscent of “Las Vegas,” but “Turkeys” wasn’t nearly as successful as that episode, in part because “Las Vegas” benched the kids and employed a host of guests to build its elegant structure. “Turkeys” aims for the same vibe, and nearly achieves it, but is done in by the familiarity of the characters, which allows for far less options by which to assemble the comedy of errors effect.

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It certainly could have worked better, but it wasn’t a complete turkey.

Stray observations:

  • The Andy-Haley-Manny love triangle is about to be a thing. I’m Team Andy.
  • Phil, on his mobile Nigella Lawson: “Whatever happened to the sweet girl I downloaded?”
  • As it turns out, Gloria is the quiet one of the family!
  • The show is on hiatus for the Thanksgiving holiday but will be back the week after. Enjoy your turkey! But hopefully less of it than the dangerous amount the Modern Family clan devoured.

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