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Modern Family is going through a serious rough patch this season. There’s no spark anymore, no charm, and even the sharp comedic timing has lacked as of late. Typically, Modern Family has at least been able to deliver a few solid jokes every half hour, and yet this season has been uniformly unfunny. Many of the jokes are strained, the premises contrived or repetitious. It can be hard to pin down every single reason why the seventh season of the show has been so disappointing—is it just a natural sitcom regression, or is it something more specific to Modern Family? To me, the biggest problem with this season has been that none of the characters actually feel like themselves anymore. Rather than creating comedy built outward from the characters, the premises and punchlines seem to come first, and then put into the mouths of characters after the fact.

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What that means is that so many of the storylines from week to week feel interchangeable, as if a character from one subplot could be subbed into another subplot and nobody would even notice. Modern Family has typically crafted its comedy out of character-based situations, meaning that the trouble Cam and Mitchell get themselves into is unique to their character history and traits. Lately though, the show has just been churning out blasé storylines that can’t even feign depth or any interest in making sure that, seven seasons in, the show is still moving its characters to new and interesting places.

Take tonight’s most inconsequential B-plot for instance, which sees Cam and Mitchell attend their friends’ wedding, only to realize that they’ve been placed at a table at the very back of the room, with quite the collection of weirdoes, while also not receiving invitations for two more upcoming weddings. They spend the whole night trying to figure out what they may have done wrong within their social circle. Cam first blames Mitchell, saying that he’s become rather ghoulish ever since he’s begun taking on divorce cases, but soon realizes that such an assessment is unfair. Then, when they rule out the fact that they cause an emotional scene everywhere they go, it’s revealed that it’s Lily who’s been sabotaging their potential weddings. She’s embarrassed by their elaborate dance routines, so she’s been turning down weddings for them.

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It’s a ridiculously lackluster payoff after such a manic, mysterious build. What’s even more egregious though is that the whole storyline lacks the uniqueness of Cam and Mitchell. Sure, the dancing punchline is very Cam and Mitchell, but what about the rest? First, there was barely any indication that Lily was at the wedding with them, making her later inclusion feel quite jarring. Also, could you not just sub in Phil and Claire for Cam and Mitchell and have the exact same sequence of events take place? I’d argue that you could. Now, not every single B-plot has to have its own unique flavor, but Modern Family is certainly at its best when its comedic subplots are grounded in character work from previous seasons and episodes.

“I Don’t Know How She Does It” has a bit more success with its other storylines. The chaos that comes when Gloria, Jay, Manny, and Luke all find themselves trying to hide things from one another boasts some inspired comedic timing. There’s Gloria immediately sitting up and shouting “what the hell are you doing?” when Jay tries to feed one of her dishes to the dog, and Alex immediately guessing “porn” when Luke and Manny say they’re having a problem with Gloria’s laptop. Then, everything comes to a head when everyone converges at the house. They all recognize that they’re trying to hide something, and rather than try to reprimand each other they just let everyone carry on with their secrets. Gloria slowly makes her way outside to get Joe from the car, Jay gets rid of the bowl of Gloria’s food, and Manny and Luke sneak away with the laptop. It’s still a rather pointless storyline, but the few laughs it garners make it stand out in this specific episode.

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Some of that chaotic energy transfers over to Phil and Claire, who are both trying to hold down their parental responsibilities along with their work obligations. It’s a balance that Phil says he’s been doing for some time—”I’ve been juggling family and work for 22 years, just juggling for 30”—and yet, Claire steps in and seems to have mastered it in no time. She’s picking up laundry, making artisan lunches, and apparently churning ice cream. Her trick: she’s not actually doing any of it. She’s focused on her work, and a guy named Ben from marketing is doing everything else for her.

The reason it all works so well is because the show treats the whole situation as if Claire is having an affair. It’s not that Phil thinks Claire is cheating, but rather he can’t understand how she gets everything done. Thus, he traces her steps and recreates her day, all while Claire tells Ben that they’re getting sloppy, that soon her husband and kids will start to notice and it could affect her marriage. It’s a nice little play on the typical affair storyline, and it even ends with a little heart, with Phil silently acknowledging that yeah, this whole parenting and working thing is damn hard. It’s not enough to redeem “I Don’t Know How She Does It” as a whole, but it’s a bright spot in an otherwise largely forgettable episode.

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Stray observations

  • “The Angel Of Death Of Gay Marriage.”
  • Is it just me or are the Luke and Manny pair-ups always disappointing?
  • I thought it was kind of weird that the whole Jay and Gloria B-plot started with Joe and yet never really paid off. It felt like they could have done more with that. Then again, it’s Joe. Who cares?
  • Ben seems like a nice, if overeager dude.
  • I’ll always take Ty Burrell doing physical comedy. His mimicking of Claire’s routine, including fake frosting of cupcakes, was pretty hilarious.

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