For all the debauchery and pessimism that comes with the New Year, including declarations about how the passing of time is just a construct, meaning that New Year’s Day doesn’t hold any more significance than any other day, it’s still hard not to get wrapped up in the idea of renewal and rebirth. You’d have to be either regrettably cynical or completely narcissistic to not see that there’s some power in the idea of turning over a new leaf, in seeing a new year as a way to begin again—thanks, T-Swift. Look, this whole human condition thing is a serious mess, and ritual goes a long way to making it seem a little more bearable, and a little less chaotic.

If the Tucker-Pritchett/Dunphy/Pritchett family feels comfortable with anything, it’s chaos. They embrace it on a daily basis. It’s their status quo, whether it’s Claire reveling in Phil’s anxiousness or Cam completely botching Thanksgiving dinner, what with the dead goat and all. A new year for this family doesn’t necessarily mean reining in the chaos, but it does mean trying to change some of their habits. It feels like Modern Family has had a string of holiday episodes lately, jumping from Halloween to Thanksgiving and then Christmas and the New Year in a relatively short span, but it’s hard to fault the show for leaning on the reliable structures that are holiday episodes. Eight seasons into any show’s run and you’re probably looking for anything to create a spark or provide a sense of familiarity.

I mention the fact that holiday episodes often have built-in structures and lessons because it’s been such a big part of Modern Family‘s relative success lately. Admittedly, labeling “Ringmaster Keifth” a “holiday episode” is a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard not to see it as part of a pattern that’s been emerging this season. That pattern: a string of lackluster episodes that don’t seem rooted in any meaningful character work, followed by a “holiday episode” that seems to find a nice balance between being funny and emotional. The holiday episodes from this season are the closest the show’s come to recapturing some of its old magic, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way holiday episodes demand the characters do a little inner examination. It’s what makes those Hallmark and Lifetime movies so disgustingly sweet but also kind of enjoyable. Who doesn’t love a little emotional honesty during the holidays?

So, while the whole family gathering at Jay and Gloria’s house for New Year’s Day isn’t exactly a call for a ton of existential musing, it is an opportunity for the show to examine just where these characters are after all these years. The past plays a large role in this episode, as Cam deals with the return of an old flame (played by Kelsey Grammer, who recaptures some of that old comedic magic he had on Frasier), and Phil is confronted with his Dad’s new girlfriend, who just so happens to be his old babysitter, first crush, and star of his first, as he puts it, “weird dream.”

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Modern Family wrings quite a bit of humor out of these situations, while never really taking the easy route with the punchlines. Instead, the episode uses this opportunity not for cheap laughs, but rather character growth. You see, years have passed since Phil’s crush, and Cam is far removed from his longing for the comfort of a circus ringmaster named Keifth. They’re no longer the same people. As Keifth notes, Cam was full of potential when he first came from Missouri, and now he’s successful, happy, and his cuffs no longer match his shirtsleeves, the ultimate sign of progress for a man named Keifth who deals largely in clowns and pigs. And Phil is no longer afraid to admit that he needs a little push to get into the messy emotions he feels, especially when it comes to having an honest talk with his father. Sure, the progress isn’t complete, and many flaws remain, but it’s nice to see both Phil and Cam treated like adults who have grown over the years, who have found a way to be comfortable with themselves.

Early on both Cam and Phil lay out their resolutions for the new year. While Phil wants to live more adventurously and take some chances, Cam wants to refrain from crying outside of the house. It’s a great punchline delivered to Mitchell, but it’s also a setup for the later scenes where Cam finally sees Keifth for the first time since the ringmaster left him without a shred of warning. Rather than resort to his typical hysterics, Cam manages to play the scene with a cool distance. It’s an affectation of course, but it’s still a moment of triumph for Cam. He manages to confront someone that hurt him in the past, and by the end of it the two have reconciled. Phil goes on a similar journey, and while he doesn’t manage to get his dad to open up to him, he does, in a roundabout way, encourage him to propose to his girlfriend because he can see how happy she makes him. Both Cam and Phil triumph here, and considering that so many sitcoms tend to become complacent as the years roll on, it’s nice to see Modern Family still paying attention to the smaller character moments, and the little triumphs that make us feel like maybe we can change after all, if only we’re given the chance.

Stray observations

  • Claire has a strange way of enjoying rides that fling you up into the air: “I’m going to try to spit on a bird.”
  • If there’s a character moment I don’t buy here, it’s that Cam wouldn’t love that apron.
  • Mitchell, when Cam’s pig roast goes south: “My dad doesn’t like to be pork teased.”
  • Cam’s shade is pretty great: “I see your in pig delivery now.”
  • Biggest laugh of the episode for me was Haley calling the peacock a “blue turkey.”

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