I’ll admit to being a bit of a sucker for holiday-themed episodes. That’s especially true when it comes to sitcoms. There’s something about the heightened emotions of the holiday season that makes some of the sitcom’s more rote and predictable tropes a little more bearable, if not completely welcome. The holiday season allows the sitcom to indulge in a little cheese, melodrama, and joy. That might explain why I found tonight’s Modern Family, despite some problems, to be rather enjoyable. It’s not Modern Family at its best, but it is the show at ease. There’s a pacing to the comedy and the drama tonight that works better than almost any episode this season. “White Christmas” is light stuff, but isn’t that what the holidays are about?
In the spirit of wanting to have a traditional White Christmas—like white people have, she says—Gloria has rented a mountain cabin for the whole family to spend the weekend in. She imagines a roaring fire, gentle snowfall, and a weekend of laughter and quality family time. She gets the roaring fire, but everything else doesn’t go as planned. When they arrive at the cabin it’s warmer there than back home, Gloria mistakenly looking at her weather app in Celsius. Still, she’s set on making the best of the situation, and everyone else is genuinely trying to as well. Phil is happy to prance around in his new coat, Mitchell and Cam are preparing a big duet of “Silent Night,” and Alex even tries to drop the skepticism for a bit and enjoy the holidays, especially once she meets F.N. Wilson (Andrea Martin), an astrophysics professor at MIT who was supposed to stay at the cabin and ends up crashing with the family.
Things go wrong quickly though. First, Jay announces his retirement and his plan to hand over the company to Chuck Feeney, an up-and-comer out of Chicago who could surely steer the business in the right direction. Claire is livid, but what she doesn’t know is that Jay has planned the whole thing. There is no Chuck Feeney. His plan is to test Claire, to see if she really wants the job. The plan backfires, and Claire goes in on Jay and thanks him for saving her years of being stuck in a boring business. Despite the contrived setup, the storyline works because of the characters. Of course Jay can’t just let his daughter have the company. Of course he wants to put some crazy scheme out there, and of course Claire lashes out before having a more reasonable discussion. The plot plays on what we now to be true about these characters, and after a few weeks of less personalized stories, that’s resfreshing.
The real joy of the episode though comes in how the rest of the plotlines weave into one another. There’s Manny and Luke trying to scare Lily by telling her that the ghost of The Forgotten Boy still haunts a locked room in the house, and there’s the abundant sexual tension between Haley and Andy as they try to sort out just how they feel about each other. Both plotlines provide reliable laughs. The former makes good use of an homage to The Shining and has fun using Luke as a punchline. Luke’s been such a dull character all season, his teenage rebellion feeling out of place in terms of the show’s overall tone, so to see him become that charmingly dumb kid again is a nice touch.
The haunted room story dovetails nicely with Haley and Andy’s romance. When the two sneak away to have sex in the locked room, Lily hears them and, after seeing that Luke and Manny aren’t messing with her, gets scared and screams—the fact that it’s right in the middle of Cam and Mitchell’s duet, and that they try to ignore her screaming and continue with their song, is good for an added laugh. That sends everyone rushing to the room and when Phil swings the door open, the two are just trying to put their clothes back on. What’s good about this is not just the execution, but the fact that their relationship is now out in the open. Modern Family could only play out their secret romance for so long before they hit diminishing returns. “White Christmas” moves their story along nicely, allowing for a few sexual innuendos, like Phil asking Andy if he’s “got wood” for the fire, and a sense of awkwardness to pervade the rest of the weekend.
If there’s an issue with that storyline though it’s the way the show just seems to tidy everything up rather quickly. While dragging out Andy and Haley’s secret romance could have been disastrous, seeing their issues resolved so quickly feels like a bit of a cop out. When Gloria surprises everyone with a visit from Andy’s fiancée, and she then tells Andy that she’s been cheating and that they should break up, it feels like Modern Family is missing an opportunity to really explore the consequences of their actions. Instead, the show dispatches with Beth and has Gloria tell Andy to just be happy that Haley loves him. I know I mentioned that I like “light” holiday episodes, but that doesn’t mean Modern Family can just tidily clean up a big mess it’s been teasing for weeks now.
Still, “White Christmas” is a solid holiday episode, and one of the better episodes so far this season. It doesn’t get too far into the holiday melodrama, which is a shame, but it does use Christmas as a backdrop for chaos, revelation, and comedy.
- Phil describes his coat as “a big warm hug from a mama sheep.”
- “I won’t name names, but it rhymes with Century not very fun.”
- “I’ll take the bike-shaped one.”
- Good running joke tonight with Alex trying to get into the Christmas spirit and everyone assuming she’s being sarcastic.
- Mitchell accurately sums up the holiday experience: “That’s it, I’m drinking.”