Modern Family hasn’t always been that interested in digging into the past. For a sitcom, that’s not too uncommon. Sure, many sitcoms use a guest spot to shine a little light on a character’s previous life, but more often than not the sitcom just trudges on, moving families and stories forward without really building on much that came before. What’s interesting about Modern Family‘s lack of insight into the pasts of these characters is that there’s seemingly so much to know. We know the broad strokes of their upbringings, be it Cam’s childhood in Missouri, Phil’s love of cheerleading, or the fact that Claire has always been a bit of a control freak. But those are, for the most part, surface-level details. They inform who these characters are, but they don’t necessarily tell us much about how they became those people.
“Sarge & Pea” isn’t a particularly memorable episode, and it’s certainly the weakest episode in quite a few weeks, but it does dig into the past in interesting ways. Modern Family had been stringing together one decent episode after another after getting off to a rocky start this season, but this week’s offering largely feels more in line with the shoddy storytelling that defined those early episodes. Like the worst of this season, “Sarge & Pea” is overstuffed, a chaotic episode that runs through a number of storylines, which leads to a complete lack of narrative focus.
Things are a mess from the get-go; the opening moments alone cram in the return of DeDe, a hastily explained wedding, a piglet prank pulled by Gloria, and a flashback to a dance recital that prepares us for a confrontation later. What’s frustrating is that if you take away just how many smaller details are floating around the central plots this week, “Sarge & Pea” actually boasts a story that seems important to tell. Underneath all the chaos of Mitchell and Claire freaking out about spending an entire wedding night with their mother and father, and Gloria and Phil getting into some unusual situations during their college tour with Manny and Luke, is a story about parental influence, communication, and the flawed nature of the family unit.
Ignoring the much-less impactful, but certainly funnier, plot involving Cam confronting a woman who blocked his view of Lily’s first dance recital when she got up in the middle of a performance to record her own child with a gigantic tablet, the other two stories build something meaningful out of very rote sitcom premises. The first sees Claire and Mitchell attend a wedding with their father, only to be surprised by the presence of DeDe (Shelley Long, welcome as always). While the two kids initially plan on keeping their parents apart in the hopes of having a conflict-free evening, they soon get freaked out by something even worse than parental fighting: DeDe and Jay seem to be getting along swimmingly. In fact, they keep calling each other by cute (relatively speaking) nicknames while reminiscing about certain moments from their time together.
That camaraderie leads to Mitchell and Claire finally unloading years of childhood angst on their parents, chastising them for not being this way when they were together, when it was important for them to act like civilized adults. Then, things get ever weirder, as both DeDe and Jay own up to their mistakes. They tell the kids that they’re right. They tell them that even though they believed they were staying together “for the kids,” they probably kept them in a house with two unhappy people for too long. I can’t emphasize enough what a genuine moment it is. For once, Modern Family doesn’t undercut the moment with a joke. Instead, DeDe and Jay get up to dance to “At Last” while Claire and Mitchell tear up. So, not only does Modern Family let the moment sit, it also gives us a little insight into how Mitchell and Claire came to be the people they are today. That’s solid storytelling; you just have to get past the wine fridge to find it.
While Jay and DeDe take the spotlight in “Sarge & Pea,” there’s also room for Phil and Gloria to grow a little. With Manny and Luke about to head to college, Gloria and Phil are in full-on parent mode. That means that they’re doing everything they can to prepare their kids for the reality of the college experience. For Gloria, that means continually pranking Manny in the hopes of convincing him to not be so uptight. For Phil, it’s building up Luke’s self-esteem so that he feels like he can succeed if he is accepted to college. What neither of them realize is that they’re actually contributing to their kids’ anxiety rather than alleviating it.
This whole plot feels like Modern Family making good on the fumbled “Alex goes to college” storyline from last season. Where that had very little emotional impact, or really any exploration of how Alex leaving would affect the family, here there’s an interesting dynamic between Phil and Gloria that’s particularly poignant. Gloria’s pranks are a manifestation of her panic. She’s not just worried about how Manny will handle being out on his own; she’s worried how she will handle Manny being out on his own. So she tries to lighten the mood, to no avail. Phil, who’s been through this process before, gets to play the role of the comforting, experienced parent. He helps Gloria sort through her feelings, while also taking in her insight about the way his constant belief in Luke can also lead to him feeling like a failure.
“Sarge & Pea” contains plenty of this type of nuanced writing. It’s just a shame that it has to struggle to poke through all the chaos.
- I will adopt that piglet immediately, thank you very much.
- Cam letting Haley know that he’s stealing her joke to use on Mitchell was probably the laugh of the night.
- Or it was Phil looking directly into the camera after Gloria offhandedly reveals that she won Star Search at some point in her life.
- Phil believes Luke can succeed at college because he’s always been good at overcoming the odds: “We forgot to get you vaccinated until you were six.”
- Phil is worried that his talk about bells and ropes is becoming too sexual. Luke: “Not really, you talk like this a lot.”
- “My mom’s treating me like I’m in a Japanese game show.”
- Phil’s advice for dealing with a kid going off to college: “You just have to hope they get irritating enough by the end of the year that you want them to leave.”