The second season of Modern Family has veered erratically from all-time classics, that deserve to stand with the best episodes from season one, to deeply mediocre or even bad episodes, almost without rhyme or reason. The show is still capable of greatness (and should have a solid set of Emmy tapes to submit, when the time comes), but it’s distressingly free of the kinds of B/B+ episodes that let you know you’re in good hands. Realistically, not every episode of a show that produces 22-26 episodes in a season can be absolutely fantastic, but shows that are on a roll—as Modern Family was in season one—are shows that alternate fantastic episodes with very good ones. The series is in no danger of being dropped from my DVR rotation (or anyone’s, I should hope), but it is having a very, very weird second year.
All of this is preamble to say that “Two Monkeys And A Panda” isn’t quite to the level of an all-time classic, but it’s the best episode the show has produced in 2011, so far, and it’s the kind of solid episode that makes it seem as though all is right in the show’s writers’ room. Curiously, the episode is written by a freelancer (though, of course, freelancers are usually invited to sit in the writers’ room for work on their particular episodes), though the name on the script is a good one, one that might have suggested something this good. Carol Leifer is credited for the episode’s script, and she’s a writer who’s been gone from the TV scene for too long. Leifer, a stand-up, is reportedly the basis for the character of Elaine on Seinfeld, and she wrote many of that series’ best episodes, including season seven classic “The Rye.” From there, she bounced around a number of series, most of which struggled early and were canceled, including Seinfeld-alike It’s Like, You Know…, Alright Already, and Almost Perfect. With Mitchell Hurwitz, she co-created The Ellen Show, offering one of the great examples of a huge amount of talent being thrown at a series that turned out fairly mediocre.
Since the multi-camera sitcom has increasingly disappeared from the airwaves and since Leifer apparently doesn’t have an in with Chuck Lorre, she’s been away for far too long (aside from a script for, of all things, Rules Of Engagement), but she joins Modern Family tonight, and I hope she sticks around. Leifer’s script plays on a bunch of ideas that are inherent to the set-up and premise of the show, but they’re all ideas the series hasn’t dabbled in until now, surprisingly. While the best episodes of Modern Family figure out ways to bounce the many actors off of each other in new and surprising ways, the show also gets lots of mileage out of delving into the complicated histories between these characters, and that’s something this script does in spades.
One of the things that has bedeviled the show this season is a desire to go too big, too quickly. Going over-the-top is something all sitcoms do, if they run for any length of time, but Modern Family is both a little young to be heading into such bizarre territory and much better when it’s understated. Leifer’s script for “Two Monkeys” never pushes too far—outside of a brief series of flashbacks of Cam freaking out that could have become too much to take if it went too much further—and it’s one of the best things about the episode. There are no attempts to undercut the essentially serious moments with stray pratfalls or stupid jokes, and even the touching climax of the episode isn’t contained in one of the show’s too-easy, mushy monologues. (Indeed, the monologue is used to make sure the show goes out on a joke, rather than on the moment of sentimentality, good as that moment is.)
Of the three storylines, the Jay and Gloria storyline is probably the strongest. It plays off something we’ve known about the couple since the series’ debut—Jay is much older than Gloria—but in a new way. Jay’s begun thinking about his eternal resting place, and he wants to be laid to rest in a crypt, where he’ll share space with plenty of other corpses. Gloria is horrified by this notion. How will God find him if he’s in a drawer? (Jay suggests that it will be easier to find him than it is to find things in the family’s junk drawers.) And when the two meet a pair of creepy old folks who try to get to know everyone renting out space in the crypt, they bump up against something the show’s never directly addressed before: Jay is so much older than Gloria that he’s probably going to die much sooner than she will. And then she’ll probably remarry. From here, the episode darts into a quick sidebar with Manny where a bit of the couple’s history is revealed—Gloria fell for Jay during a fight, when she realized she’d met her match—and then the story is resolved with Jay deciding to be cremated, so he can always sit and watch over his wife and her new husband from a coffee can. It’s touching, sure, but it’s also a touch snarkier than the show usually is.
The Mitchell and Cameron storyline gains points for being willing to take the characters seriously, something that the show hasn’t always done this season. After Cameron reveals his plan to remove the stigma of the word “adopted” for Lily and to write a storybook about her origins (the title of the book provides the episode’s title), he realizes that her birth certificate lists her middle name as Tucker, instead of her having the hyphenated last name Tucker-Pritchett. At first, this seems like it’s going to be the usual freak-out from Cameron, as the two eventually work everything out and hug each other, but he’s right. This IS the kind of thing Mitchell would double-check endlessly. And that’s when the truth comes out: Mitchell listed Tucker as the middle name because Cameron was so worked up in the build-up to Lily’s adoption that Mitchell feared he would turn tail and leave, and he didn’t want to forever have Lily’s last name honoring a man who left her. It’s a surprisingly dramatic moment to end an act on, from a show that often tries to undercut these moments with jokes, and while the episode ends with the two making up (how could it not?), the storyline feels much more real than anything the two have had to play in ages.
Finally, there’s the Dunphy family, which isn’t quite up to the level of the other two storylines but is still amusing. Phil, realizing a spa certificate bought for charity is about to expire, takes it upon himself to use the certificate himself, while Claire embarks on a journey to find a replacement sweater, as Alex, who borrowed said sweater from Haley, ripped the sweater on the way out the door. Needless to say, if Haley found out, she’d be deeply unhappy, so Claire decides to keep the peace by finding a replacement. At the same time, Phil learns the tricks of keeping his wife happy at the spa, and it all comes together at the end, when Claire ruins the second sweater but lets Alex take the blame, then finds herself unexpectedly comforted by Phil. A little of the shrewish Claire can go a long way, but “Two Monkeys” never pushes too far, always undercutting her nastier moments with jokes and letting the emotional climax of the episode feel earned.
There are weeks of this show when I feel like each of the three storylines should receive a separate grade, so dissimilar in quality are they. But “Two Monkeys And A Panda” rarely dips too much below a B+. It’s just a nice, moving episode of television, one that reminds you that when this show is at its best, it can tell sweet little stories about what it means to unconditionally love someone as well as any other show on the air. It’s been a bumpy road for Modern Family so far this season, but if there are more episodes like this in the tank as the rest of the season plays out, I’ll be more than thrilled.
- Leifer also wrote for The Larry Sanders Show. Seriously, if Modern Family doesn’t hire this woman, then ABC should give her her own show or something.
- Modern Family is very much one of the shows of the moment, but it seems like such a weird, unassuming show to have attracted the rabid fanbase it has. Irate Modern Family fans drove Alan Sepinwall out of the Modern Family reviewing business, while I’ve been to more than a few gatherings where someone asks me what I think of Modern Family and is aghast when I say I think it’s good but not as good as it was. Is this a TV-critic-specific phenomenon, or have all of you noticed this, too?
- I want that old couple from the crypt to turn up in future episodes, just hanging around the edges of the frame, doing what they do.
- John's out at GDC this fine evening, but I have good news for you all the same: Donna's back next week. Yay, Donna!
- "If you don't use them, then all of our money just goes to charity!"
- "What did Oprah do now?"
- "… Like I used to do with Mitchell."
- "Remember how I used to wear it and walk around and act like I had a giant head?" "That was good acting!"
- "She's the panda because she's Asian." "And we're monkeys because …" "I can draw monkeys."
- "What a random and not helpful fact, Phil."
- "I think they have a very good point… and they're not crazy at all."
- "It's an expression. It means she didn't get it."
- "I had to undress a mannequin while a creepy guy filmed it, so we have that to look forward to on the Internet."
- "Technically, it's my house, but I will fix that too."