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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family turns an abysmal setup into a fun Comedy of Errors

Illustration for article titled iModern Family /iturns an abysmal setup into a fun Comedy of Errors
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It’s difficult to not get repetitive when you’ve been reviewing a show for as long as I’ve been on the Modern Family beat. When it comes to sitcoms, you tend to see a lot of the same things over and over again. Whether it’s the comedic situations or the attempts at more weighty drama, it all becomes familiar. What that means is that within minutes of an episode starting, it’s usually easy to determine how everything is going to play out.

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Every now and then though, an episode surprises you. It takes a truly terrible setup and manages to craft something that’s actually funny and inventive. That’s true of “The Prescott,” which starts out with a premise that’s primed for disaster, and then morphs into a wonderfully choreographed Comedy of Errors that indulges in various misunderstandings and selfish intentions.

The events begin when Alex’s new employer sets her up with a condo in a swanky building that’s home to a few rich, famous people. When the rest of the family takes the tour and find out that they’re not allowed to just walk around and see everything from the pool to the screening room by themselves, they all individually decide to steal Alex’s resident code and gain access to everything on their own. They each have their own plans, like Cam and Mitchell hoping to run into David and Victoria Beckham, Claire wanting to get her hair colored by a popular stylist who Gloria is enemies with, and Phil hoping to secure a spot at an exclusive restaurant so that he can snag a review for his up-and-coming food blog.

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When you read all of that, it sounds abysmal. It sounds like every character is going to embrace their worst impulses, which will lead to a bunch of jokes that don’t land. The show has certainly been down that road before. But “The Prescott” is different. Sure, everyone is being selfish and unbearable, but there’s a larger goal here. The entire episode is played like a Comedy of Errors, where one misunderstanding leads to another, until everything is going off the rails.

It’s surprisingly delightful to watch, perhaps because “The Prescott” feels removed from the season’s rather lackluster storytelling. This final season of Modern Family hasn’t had any narrative throughline anchoring the stories, and that’s resulted in a lot of episodes that feel like meaningless filler. “The Prescott” could be defined as filler too, because it’s not furthering any plots, but it’s really not aiming to. Instead, it’s trying to be a standalone comedic episode filled with ludicrous gags and setpieces, and on that level it succeeds.

There’s nothing all that unique here, but the formula works. As everyone comes back to the building and uses Alex’s code to try and get what they want, a chain reaction happens. One misunderstanding leads to another, and suddenly everyone is further from where they started. Higgins, the eager-to-please concierge played by Stephen Merchant—who you may remember as the same butler that worked in a Las Vegas hotel from an episode earlier in the show’s run—acts as the agent of chaos, the unknowing actor in the misfortunes of everyone else.

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As Higgins tries his best to direct these “residents” and fulfill their need, he leads them into awkward situations. Phil ends up thinking Claire has set him up with Gloria for one wild night. Cam and Mitchell feud over their attempts to meet the Beckhams, and rope Higgins into a near-sexual encounter that’s not intended. Luke and Manny’s attempts at meeting older women only lead to them meeting David Beckham and Courtney Cox by accident, and Jay spends most of the episode trying to track down his new online nemesis, the Foodie in a Hoodie, who just so happens to be Phil.

Everything comes together wonderfully, in the way a Comedy of Errors should. Phil’s attempts at securing a slider for review on his food blog is misconstrued as an attempt to get Gloria alone, who earlier struggled to overcome her fear of slides. Claire, after a change in hair color, is confused for Victoria Beckham when Higgins isn’t wearing his glasses. Luke and Manny make a lot of “brunette and blonde” mistakes. This isn’t Tati’s Playtime or anything, but it’s a wonderful bit of layered, physical, situational comedy that works well as a standalone episode.

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Stray observations

  • I love that at the beginning of the episode, Phil recognizes that while the family considers themselves to be nice, they sure have a lot of rivals.
  • I’d watch a limited series that’s largely Courtney Cox insulting David Beckham.
  • “I’ll need a bib; I can make a mess” is one of the more hilarious/disgusting misconstrued lines of the episode.
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Kyle Fowle is a freelance writer based out of Canada. He writes about TV and wrestling for The A.V. Club, Real Sport, EW, and Paste Magazine.

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