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The seventh season of Modern Family was the worst of the show’s run so far, a steep decline in quality from previous seasons. While the show has been steadily growing more and more complacent as the seasons pile up—along with, it should be said, the Emmy nominations—there was at least the sense that the seventh season would see the show find a new direction. Fresh storylines and character situations appeared, as Alex was off to college, Manny and Luke would be navigating their teen years, and the two central matriarchs, Claire and Gloria, were taking on roles as prominent businesswomen.

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Alas, it turns out that new situations don’t always lead to necessary creative change. The show struggled to find its way last season, often repeating storylines and refusing to find ways to truly challenge characters that had become little more than personality-less vessels for cheap punchlines. Much like the beginning of last season, “Tale Of Three Cities,” the eighth season premiere, shows some vague promise. It’s mostly a competent and simple re-introduction to the Dunphy/Pritchett clan. But as we saw in season seven, it’s easy for something simple to suddenly go completely off the rails.

“Tale Of Three Cities” is exactly as its title states. As everyone took off at the end of last season, the eighth season premiere catches up with each respective family member. The Dunphys are wrapping up their trip in New York, Cam and Mitchell are essentially awaiting for Cam’s grandma to feel the sweet release of death while in Missouri, all while Jay, Gloria, and Manny attend a cousin’s wedding in Mexico. Before everyone makes their way back home in time for Father’s Day, their respective trips are thrown into turmoil. Both the Dunphy kids and parents decide to spend more time in New York, unbeknownst to each other; Mitchell is blamed for the death of Cam’s grandma; and the Pritchett’s must flee the wedding when Gloria is afraid to confront her cousin Sonia (played by an always welcome Stephanie Beatriz).

For the most part, the broad strokes of the stories work and give “Tale Of Three Cities” a clarity of purpose and narrative direction. The episode works on a rather simplistic level, allowing us to ease into a new season and catch up with the characters. That doesn’t mean we really learn anything new here—in fact, there’s little about the three trips that give us much insight into where these people are at in their respective lives—but it doesn’t mean that we feel oriented by the end of the episode. If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because it is. “Tale Of Three Cities” is nearly the definition of forgettable sitcom episodes, a premiere that does little above the bare minimum of plot requirements. Yes, there’s a sense of direction that means the season is in a better place than it was at the end of last season, but that’s not exactly a remarkable achievement.

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What’s worse is that “Tale Of Three Cities” sees Modern Family perpetuating and leaning on stereotypes once again, something that the show has always done to a certain extent, but that felt particularly offensive and uninventive throughout season seven. In the three minutes the episode spends catching up with Gloria in Mexico, there are a flurry of reductive “jokes” based on her Mexican heritage. There’s a joke about immigration and digging tunnels, followed by Sonia getting upset about her wedding gift, a machete, because another guest has purchased the same thing. What’s the joke here? There really doesn’t seem to be one. That’s how reductive, harmful stereotypes work. They operate on a false understanding, on a often racist and ignorant simplification of a people and culture. Modern Family has been cutting down Gloria, a genuinely bighearted, complex, intriguing character, for years now, and “Tale Of Three Cities” suggests that there’s no end in sight.

Those types of complacent, lazy jokes and stereotypes contribute to one of Modern Family‘s ongoing problems: a wild variation in the quality of storylines within a single episode. So, Gloria’s storyline, which devolves into a failed kidnapping plot—“It’s normal in my family,” says Gloria, making sure we can all roll our eyes once more—distracts from the more comedically rewarding portions of the episode. Specifically, there’s an inspired staging and pacing to the saga of the Dunphys, as both the kids and the adults try to keep their lies intact while failing to recognize that they’re staying hotel rooms next door to each other, and even attending the same David Blaine magic show.

Now, that storyline is certainly peppered with its own predictable, stale jokes. Punchlines about how parents have no alone time once they have kids? Check. A joke about how the kids were kept up by the sounds of sex noises while not knowing it was their parents having sex in the next room? Of course! Those are tired jokes to lean on, but that doesn’t stop the majority of the storyline from hitting its mark. From Luke and Phil continually coming close to blowing their cover by making up elaborate, complex lies, to the emotional undercurrent of how the Dunphys all enrich each other’s lives, this section of the episode is the kind of lighthearted, funny, breezy dramedy that the show excels at.

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Essentially, “Tale Of Three Cities” is a mixed bag. While the Dunphys get a solid storyline that works as a one-off comedic situation, the other two storylines fail to get off the ground. There’s never been much intrigue in the show’s diversions into Cam’s family and past life, and that stays true here. Add to that the lazy stereotypes that make up the rest of the episode, and “Tale Of Three Cities” feels like an occasionally promising, but largely frustrating start to the sitcom’s eighth season.

Stray observations

  • Luke is a much more enjoyable character when he’s paired with Phil. Otherwise, he’s practically unbearable.
  • Speaking of Luke: “It just popped into my head when I saw the Statue of Liberty holding that paintbrush.”
  • Phil doesn’t want to leave New York just yet: “It’s killing me. Tomorrow is open mic at The Apollo.”
  • “She’s hard to understand because of the dentures she inherited. You know they were made from the keys of a child’s piano.”
  • One of Phil’s more enlightened takeaways from his trip: “Is there a bird more majestic than the American pigeon?”
  • “I hate that I can’t share this with him. Magic isn’t about secrets and tricking people.”
  • “I was born normal. Not really, they said I came out with bangs.”
  • “No, no. Your jealousy is all I need.”

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