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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Surprise! Modern Family doesn’t handle race very well

Illustration for article titled Surprise! Modern Family doesn’t handle race very well
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It’s probably best to start this week’s review by quoting the episode description that came along with this episode of Modern Family, the same description pulled from the ABC press site that’s used in our What’s On Tonight? coverage. Here it is, verbatim:

“Phil has a new client who happens to be ‘his type,’ and knowing that might get him in trouble with Claire, he tells some seemingly innocent lies, which then lead to more, and soon enough he’s in a full spiral.”


You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a pretty innocuous description for a sitcom subplot—something that the show can riff on—especially considering that Modern Family does a good job of pitting Claire and Phil against one another in rather harmless, but fun ways. But there’s a big problem contained within the premise. Phil’s type? It’s black women, and oh boy does Modern Family not handle it well.

Before we get to that huge problem though, it must be said that a lot of this week’s Modern Family works because it’s a hell of a lot funnier than just about any other recent episode. There are two rather harmless and inconsequential subplots that work really well this week because they are low-key charming. The first, but less successful one, sees Jay starting his own YouTube show called “Jay Talking.” It’s essentially the “Grind My Gears” bit from Family Guy but with a real live white dude. Jay uses the space to complain about all sorts of things he finds wrong with the modern world—menus on chalkboards, hashtags, etc. The comedy is a little broad at first, and falls too far into the stereotype of Jay being old and out of touch, but when a troll appears in the comments section, things pick up.

For once, Manny is actually an asset to the subplot, telling Jay that he shouldn’t feed the trolls, and then acting as his guide when Jay decides to go to the guy’s house and confront him after Alex’s computer geek friends track him down. When Jay gets there, it’s revealed that Earl, his arch nemesis from the closet world, is the troll. It’s a nice reveal, as is the ensuing battle between them. The best bit is when they both agree that they pushed each other to be better, and Earl proposes being added to the show. When Jay auditions him it turns out that they can’t do a “point-counterpoint” show because they agree on everything. When Manny points this out, trying to mend some fences, Jay disagrees and says it just shows that Earl has no original ideas. The dynamic here works well, showing how stubborn both Jay and Earl are while Manny remains at a distance, watching as the train wreck unfolds. I’ll say this: it’s been awhile since I’ve even found a Jay/Manny storyline watchable, so this is nice.

The other pleasant and funny storyline sees Cam and Mitchell teaching Lily how to ride a bike. Lily is scared, and the two parents have two very different approaches to getting her on the bike. Cam wants to take her to the park and force her, to show her that it’s not so bad, while Mitchell wants to wait until she’s ready, largely because he’s scared of her being too adventurous, too reckless out in the world. Things get worse when they do go to the park and Cam crashes his bike, out of Lily’s sight, and breaks his arm. This gives Modern Family an excuse to indulge in a little chaos, with Cam coming up with another way to say he broke his arm while keeping Lily’s fear at bay.


What works though is the small moments. There’s the jacked shirtless jogger that runs through the background of the frame, followed minutes later by Mitchell asking Cam, “you crashed looking at the shirtless jogger, didn’t you?” It’s a solid delayed visual gag, and it’s nice to see it deployed in a way that shows the connection between Cam and Mitchell. There’s no jealousy or petty fighting. Mitchell clearly noticed him too, and the two just walk away in awe at the hunk of man-meat they just witnessed. But seriously, this kind of subplot is exactly what I’ve been calling for in recent reviews. Where past subplots have felt like cookie-cutter sitcom ideas that could be used with any couple on the show, this subplot works best with Cam and Mitchell. It brings out the strengths of Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and even Aubrey Anderson-Emmons’ Lily is a delight, knocking out punchlines and keeping pace with her on-screen dads.

The problems with “The Cover-Up” start and end with Phil and Claire, and they are big problems. There’s good stuff within the subplot, as Modern Family can get a lot of comedic mileage out of Claire and Phil trying to hide harmless things from each other—the previous episode embraced that dynamic to great effect—but there’s nothing really harmless about the secrets they’re keeping here. To sum up: Claire is hiding that she’s enjoying the very physical attention she’s getting from a yoga instructor, while Phil is lying about his latest client to Claire because he knows she’ll see the client is exactly his type. That’s fine, other than the fact that Phil’s type is “black women.”


The reveal is beyond tone deaf, and seriously inexplicable as a storytelling device because it isn’t funny, nor does it really do anything for Phil as a character. Instead, Phil’s love of black women is played as a joke, but it’s hard to see what’s funny about it (spoiler alert: it’s actually just offensive). Alarm bells go off immediately as Phil lies about the woman’s appearance to Claire and then tells the camera that he had to tell “a little white lie, which is ironic.” I mean, how does that joke make it through rewrites? How does such a rote, dated, stale idea make it into the script of a mainstream comedy? It’s baffling that this is the route Modern Family decides to go, and with charming Phil of all people.

The crazy thing is that the tag at the end of “The Cover-Up” sees this woman, Angie, finally speak for herself after Claire and Phil sit down with her and assure her that he isn’t a racist. She says that even though she accepts the apology, it was still hurtful to be boxed into an idea of who she is. Then the show skirts right past that revelation and has Angie’s husband, a black man, show up and get instantly attracted to Claire, as if balancing the scales excuses everything that came before it. This subplot is so misguided, tone deaf, and downright cringeworthy that it completely diminishes everything that’s otherwise good in this episode.


Stray observations

  • “Shake weight and power walk combo.” Oh Phil. You peaked early in this episode.
  • “I’m not just a pretty face people sit on.” Like I said.
  • Jay was like one minute away from shouting “make America great again!!” during his online show.
  • Mitchell’s thoughts on mayonnaise: “How does egg become that?”
  • That was honestly the most I’ve ever enjoyed Lily in a subplot. She was hilarious.
  • “I’m just showing them how to teach a kid!”

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