When Modern Family is really firing on all cylinders, it’s usually working to subvert a few sitcom tropes while also embracing its structure and milking it for as many laughs as possible. So far this season the show has struggled to really do something different or interesting with its sitcom structure. It seems like, after seven seasons, Modern Family is falling back on tired storylines and rote tropes, the novelty of the various couples having worn off at this point. It doesn’t help that the show, which was once vibrant and fresh, feels stale when stacked against newcomers like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat.
To prove just how dire and inconsistent this season has been, consider that tonight’s episode, “Clean Out Your Junk Drawer,” boasts a guest appearance from Catherine O’Hara as a self-help guru and yet can barely find a laugh throughout the half hour. That’s not to take away from O’Hara at all. She’s actually the bright spot of the episode, partly because she’s a welcome, fresh face, but also because her self-help guru shtick hits all the right notes. Dr. Debra Radcliffe is committed to her “junk drawer” metaphor and speaks in hushed tones throughout the episode. Played by O’Hara, it’s hilarious in a low-key kind of way, but also strangely depressing. O’Hara makes sure that Radcliffe is a little dead behind the eyes, and when she bails on the family just as they get their “junk out of their drawers,” she does so while lamenting dumbing down her research. It’s not quite black comedy, but it’s close, and O’Hara makes it work.
While O’Hara’s deadpan performance is worthy of a few laughs, the rest of the cast can’t find much in the familiar setup. Radcliffe is in Phil and Claire’s house because Gloria bid on a seminar at an auction and won. Now she has the whole family in the living room for a three-hour seminar that involves getting in touch with traumas from their childhoods and then venting to their partners about what bothers them in their marriages. It’s a recipe for disaster, and ideally comedy, but what’s so disappointing is how familiar and predictable it all feels. “Clean Out Your Junk Drawer” never pushes its characters, or the audience for that matter, outside of their comfort zones.
Think about what every character opens up about here, and how their insights aren’t personal or unique but rather blandly universal. Jay complains that he’s missing Sunday football. Claire is worried that she might not “win therapy.” Cam and Mitchell complain to each other about minuscule things like turning the lights off and using a coaster. These insights are hardly compelling or rooted in what we understand about these characters. Cam and Mitchell’s complaints could be applied to just about anyone on this show, or any other half hour sitcom. While you could argue that that’s part of the point, that Modern Family is showing that all couples have very similar problems, it feels more like a narrative cop-out than anything else. Plus, the familiarity of the setup demands something more interesting, more inventive. Modern Family puts all of those great characters and performers into one room and yet can’t find a single comedic or dramatic spark because it’s too busy aiming for the lowest common denominator.
While it’s nice that “Clean Out Your Junk Drawer” has a tighter narrative focus, with only two plot lines this week, the second feels like a retread; it’s not that it’s filled with dull, familiar tropes like the A-plot, but rather that it continues to drag out two of this season’s most uninteresting storylines. Essentially, Claire and Phil kick Haley out of the house for the seminar, so she heads to Cal Tech to visit Alex. Once there, the two start chatting about their boy problems. Alex doesn’t know how to break up with Ruben, the high schooler who absolutely idolizes, and Haley isn’t sure what to do about the fact that she hooked up with Andy, who, you know, is engaged and all. Their story starts out well enough, with the two genuinely bonding over the fact that they’re rather helpless when it comes to the men they choose, but quickly devolves into the same beats Modern Family has been hitting week after week. Alex has been at college for a while now and the only real story she’s been given is her breakup with Sanjay and her fleeting romance with Ruben. Alex being in college should open up a lot of storytelling opportunities, but so far the best Modern Family can come up with is a flimsy one based on Alex feeling wanted. There has to be more for her to do.
As for Haley, she fares a bit better. While it’s still frustrating to see her going through a lot of the same motions—her decision to call off her hook-ups with Andy, only to hop right back in bed with him is reminiscent of her pattern with Dylan—her emotions and tribulations feel much more earned. Haley is vulnerable and confused, having lost the man she thinks she loves. In those moments it can be hard to think clearly, to think beyond the moment and truly consider potential consequences. Modern Family could use a little more tension, a little more conflict, and right now Haley’s storyline is the only one offering up anything even close to that.
- The best of Debra Radcliffe’s chapter titles: “Hey, get a handle on it.”
- A close second: “Scary Dreams, Expired Creams.”
- Seven seasons of Colombia crime jokes and counting.
- Claire saying “me likey” really is the worst.
- Andy is so racked with guilt that he “even funded a Zach Braff movie on Kickstarter.”
- Phil was the only white member of his high school improv team, Ha Ha Black Sheep.