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Phil Dunphy brings joy to an otherwise dull episode of Modern Family

Illustration for article titled Phil Dunphy brings joy to an otherwise dull episode of Modern Family
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In my review of last week’s Modern Family, I mentioned that the episode suffered from a lack of focus and attention to detail. The storylines felt so out there, so chaotic, that it was hard to grasp onto a central theme or narrative, never mind find some laughs amongst the mess. This week’s episode doesn’t fare much better in terms of tying all the disparate storylines together into something meaningful, but it does a much better job of making sure that each one is given room to breathe, meaning that more of the jokes land and more of the emotional core shines through.

All the separate storylines run the gamut tonight from dull, broad comedy to more heartfelt material, and while the swings from one to the next aren’t necessarily jarring, it does mean that “She Crazy” varies in quality across its 30 minutes. The most tiresome storyline here involves Cam getting along too well with the frat boys who are renting the apartment upstairs. Cam has always had a more traditionally masculine side, evidenced by his farm upbringing and his love for football, so the fact that he gets along with the bros isn’t really a problem. What’s strange is the way Modern Family drives home the idea that Cam is always adapting who he is based on the people he’s around. It feels peculiar not only because Cam has always been a “take me as I am” kind of guy, but because the whole plotline feels contrived, as it’s largely an excuse to get Cam doing different impressions of groups of people. We see him vocal while watching a horror movie with a black family, gossiping and putting on a Southern Belle accent with a trio of grandmas, and chest bumping with his frat buddies. Typically these types of broad sight gags are below Modern Family, the descent into caricature, with little nuance or even humor, disappointing on a show that’s proven it can be more insightful, even when tackling more traditional sitcom plotlines.


The same problems plague Gloria’s plotline because Modern Family seems incapable of using Sofia Vergara’s comedic skills properly. Here she’s a bumbling mess, stalking…err, going to meet her soap opera hero at a local hotel. When she gets there and sees her hero, Maria, she fumbles over her words and ends up shouting nonsense at her. Her incompetence is mirrored by Manny, who consistently freezes when talking to a barista that he’s fallen for, resulting in him buying two Christmas CDs and a muffin that he didn’t need. At this point the whole “Manny is smitten but can’t quite pull the trigger” thing is old news. That’s probably why Gloria’s plotline feels shoehorned in, because her material isn’t there to expand upon her character or use Vergara’s comedic skills but rather lead to a rather predictable punchline where the mother and son share the same awkwardness.

Claire doesn’t fare much better than Gloria does when confronted with her big moment. When she decides she’s finally going to pitch her father on “new, innovative” closet ideas, she falls flat on her face. She pitches a bunch of designs that have been considered before, and Jay shoots them all down instantly. Later he builds her back up, telling her that he was young and new at the job once, and that despite the pitches she needs to keep going, that she’ll get there eventually. Again, the plotline itself isn’t even that bad–the ever-growing flock of pigeons swarming Claire after she spills the bird seed had me laughing–but rather that it’s redundant. How often have we seen Claire, or any of the kids, work to impress Jay only to come up short? The answer is many, many times across seven seasons, and while I don’t expect Modern Family to be fresh and innovative at every turn, Claire’s interactions with her father in “She Crazy,” which make up most of her storyline, feel like well-trodden territory.

Thankfully Phil Dunphy and his endless optimism is here to save the day. Phil has a lot in common with Homer Simpson, and their characters have similar strengths and weaknesses. There are times when their naïveté and childlike wonder is endearing, and times when it veers too far into clueless territory, their characters becoming easy punchlines rather than charming men who are prone to silly mistakes and simple distractions. “She Crazy” sees Phil building a duck village, hopefully complete with Duckingham Palace, and trying to get everyone as excited about the potential hatching as he is. Of course everyone else is too busy or too cool to indulge in the project, so he’s stuck with the reluctant Lily. The two work on the duck village and head to the hardware store to buy tubing for a duck slide. It’s a typical Phil storyline, but it works because of the underlying sweetness. Sure, it’s funny to see Phil squatting on the eggs to keep them warm and the wordplay is always welcome, but what makes the story work is the fact that Phil, and Ty Burrell, is so excited about the ducklings. When he tells a disinterested Lily that she should embrace this moment, that she has “her whole life to roll her eyes,” it’s sweet and charming. It’s the kind of simple but effective storytelling that the show does well. “She Crazy” doesn’t hold together very well, and many of the separate plotlines fall flat, but at least Phil and his ducklings are there to warm everyone’s heart.

Stray observations

  • The stuff with Mitchell and Luke in the car was pretty funny, but still felt inconsequential, especially when the show tried to connect it with Cam’s story.
  • “It’s time! Boil some towels!”
  • That short bit where Mitchell can’t even connect with two redheaded lawyers was great.
  • “I ain’t afraid of no goats.”

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