The first two episodes of this season of Modern Family had an energy to them, and an underlying charm, that proved that despite some of the beats becoming familiar, the show still had something fun and fresh to offer. Tonight’s episode, “The Closet Case,” never really lives up to the promise of those first two episodes. What made those first two episodes shine was the raw emotion beneath the humor. Modern Family has always thrived on chaos, but that chaos needs to be grounded by human moments. When the show is deeply felt, touching on the universalities of family life, it’s at its best. “The Closet Case” boasts a lot of the shows worst tendencies, from ridiculous situations to a total lack of thematic cohesion.

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What’s frustrating about “The Closet Case” is that some intriguing comedic and dramatic elements are there but are never really given room to be explored. The episode is broadly about how parents and children navigate the need for one another, complete with rules and respect, and the need for freedom and independence, especially as everyone ages. It’s a theme that runs through each storyline here, from Gloria trying to figure out how much attention Manny needs from his assigned cheerleader to Mitchell’s attempt to move beyond his father’s decades-long feud with his ex-business partner and President of rival company Closets Closets Closets Closets, Earl Chambers. It’s a theme that Modern Family, and plenty of sitcoms, has explored before, but too much of “The Closet Case” feels frivolous, as if the idea of letting go, of kids becoming adults and parents learning to treat them as such, is just fodder for cheap laughs.

The biggest issue is that the episode never goes beyond the predictable, and the result is a mess of stale laughs and drama. The worst of the bunch sees Phil once again trying to be the cool dad by agreeing to let Dylan move into the Dunphy house and sleep in Haley’s room. At this point in the show’s run everyone knows that Phil tries to be down with everything while Claire is the taskmaster, and yet “The Closet Case” feels the need to drive this point home repeatedly. Sure, this time around Claire allows Phil to discover his own inability to be “chill,” but that change isn’t enough to keep the storyline from feeling like the same old Phil-Claire dynamic. The fact that no real tension or comedy is derived from Dylan moving in–we get the predictable uncomfortable Phil when he sees Haley and Dylan in bed together, as well as cuddling and tickling on the couch–certainly doesn’t help either.

That kind of rote storytelling extends to Gloria’s storyline as well. Gloria seems to be consistently underused on the show. Her character isn’t much beyond the overprotective mother at this point, and it’s wearing thin. When she goes to Manny’s school to confront the cheerleader who’s been assigned to do things for her son, there’s great potential in the setup. There’s Gloria’s wonderful, laser-sharp side eye when Jay tells her about the tradition and how “it’s fun for everybody,” and that moment is only underscored when the cheerleader tells Gloria that she’s not participating in the act because of how sexist it is. Now, I don’t expect Modern Family to deliver a stirring examination of sexist traditions within the world of sports, but it stands to reason that with such a setup a follow through can be expected. Instead, the storyline devolves into an argument between Cam and Gloria about coddling and letting kids feel disappointment, and all built around an underwhelming punchline involving a livestream video of otters. Modern Family certainly has the capability to tackle social issues in a meaningful and funny way–that’s essentially the original hook of the show–so it’s disappointing to see it set up and then fumble this one so badly.

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These half-baked situations leave “The Closet Case” feeling rather childish. Not only is it exhausting to see Phil and Claire once again fall back into their usual roles, and to see Gloria and Cam so underused, it’s just not a lot of fun to watch Mitchell and Jay sink to the level of Earl Chambers and try to get revenge on him, or see Modern Family churn out a predictable, dull story like Luke and Manny visiting Alex at college so that they can see (and maybe even kiss) girls. The issue isn’t even that these stories are familiar sitcom material, but rather that the show tries to shoehorn in a meaningful message on top of it all. Whether through Luke attempting to comfort Alex after Sanjay breaks up with her, or having Jay show respect and admiration for Mitchell after he steals back the Rolodex that started the feud with Earl, “The Closet Case” does its damndest to find a beating heart at the center of these lifeless sitcom tropes. The result though is a feeling of contrived emotion bordering on manipulation. There’s no real emotional weight to Luke comforting Alex, partly because he’s only kind of doing it, and partly because it’s a story that deserves more time to be explored, which is impossible when jammed in as a C or D plot.

Modern Family thrives on chaos, but only if it’s controlled and cohesive, and a little bit subversive. “The Closet Case” consists largely of lazy sitcom tropes, and that only makes the contrived emotional beats feel all the more empty.

Stray observations

  • When Lily asks where “the little leprachaun” is in regards to her cereal, Cam answers that he’s “still getting dressed.” Great little joke that was the best line of the night. Too bad it was in the first 45 seconds of the episode.
  • Really hoping that’s Alex’s Ms. Marvel poster on the dorm wall.
  • “They used to make fun of me behind my back brace.”
  • Again, I don’t expect the show to dig deep into feminist issues or anything, but that “campus consent” joke was completely tone deaf and ridiculous.
  • Philibuster is a solid nickname.
  • Cam is pretty set on Black Wednesday Afternoon. It does have a certain ring to it.
  • “I’ve seen him eat a panda steak.”

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