After a very rocky start to the season, Modern Family has found some inspiration recently. A string of solid holiday-themed episodes saw the show enter its winter break on a promising note, and since then the show has found interesting ways to shine new light on these characters, be it through the examination of lost love or the constant need for them to be accepted on their own terms. The strength of those episodes largely lies in the narrative focus; by significantly investing in the A-plot of each episode, and using tertiary scenes as thematic support, those episodes boast a depth that’s hard to find eight seasons into a show’s run. Those episode’s strengths only stand out more when contrasted with this week’s, “Heavy Is The Head,” a messy, overstuffed episode that can’t keep any of its storylines on track.

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It’s really a shame that “Heavy Is The Head” is so congested because among the plethora of outlandish plots are a few that have the potential to click. Namely, there’s promise in the reveal that Phil and Jay’s purchased land is basically unusable as any sort of commercial property. Last week’s partnership between Jay and Phil was a real highlight, a moment of approval and connection that’s been a long time coming. So, there’s a lot at stake in making this property successful; like the methane lurking below the surface, there are combustible elements here that, if mixed properly, could make for a compelling rift in Jay and Phil’s newly minted relationship.

“Heavy Is The Head” never really complicates the relationship though, which is a strange choice. Last week’s episode also spent a lot of time driving home how important this purchase was for Phil. It’s been his dream to find a spot for Dunphy Towers, and last week he finally found the confidence to go out there and really begin working toward his dream. So, it should be devastating for him to learn of the property’s substantial flaws, right? Modern Family shows no interest in digging into any potential pain from Phil though, instead moving swiftly along to a meeting with Jay and the eventual tidy resolution, which involves building a parking lot instead. That’s a perfectly fine story to tell, and it teases more to come from Jay and Phil in the future—it is nice to see them working together to fix their problem—but it also feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity when it comes to Phil’s mental state after learning that his dream is on hiatus.

While the flaws of that storyline are largely on the character level, the issues with the rest of the episode are mostly structural. Just as Phil’s emotional well-being feels underexplored here, so, too, does every other storyline suffer from the jam-packed nature of “Heavy Is The Head.” In fact, the episode would have benefited from a more precise approach. With something as potentially impactful as Phil’s dream being shattered ready to take up time in this episode, what’s the point of following along with Cam and Mitchell while they bicker about Cam getting an MRI after a failed science fair experiment? That storyline, which sees Cam both frightened to get an MRI and admit that Mitchell may have some parental qualifications that he doesn’t, hardly moves beyond slapstick. Don’t get me wrong, the slapstick is great—I’ll watch Eric Stonestreet take a pratfall and a frying pan to the head all day long—but it’s also rather inconsequential when positioned next to Phil’s struggles. Essentially, Phil and Jay’s story shows some signs of life, but it can’t get off the ground when it’s surrounded by the more farcical adventures of this family.

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Similarly, it’s hard to get too invested in the idea that both Haley and Alex are doing their best to ingratiate themselves with the new people in their lives. For Haley, that means asking Manny to teach her about Game Of Thrones so that she can look smart at Comic-Con with Rainer. For Alex, it’s trying to curb her behavior in order to stay invited to a party thrown by her “cool” co-workers. The problem is that neither of these characters have been given anything substantial in terms of storylines this season. Alex is apparently still at college, and Haley is apparently still dating Rainer, but there’s no insight into those seemingly important parts of their lives. Modern Family continues to shun the children on this show—speaking of which, where the hell is Luke? Both Alex and Haley are going through significant changes in their lives. They are at pivotal moments that could define them for years, and yet all Modern Family can muster is a few stale Game Of Thrones jokes.

Modern Family has done a great job in terms of character moments as of late, which makes “Heavy Is The Head” all the more disappointing. There’s so much potential in these storylines, but it’s all wasted. There’s no depth and no sense that these characters are living, breathing people with feelings and complications.

Stray observations

  • Phil’s “dream” drawing being revealed as the musings of a 15-year-old Phil is a nice touch.
  • I know I didn’t mention Gloria or Claire above, but that’s because their storyline involves all the same issues. It’s a meaningless, meandering story that never quite finds its purpose.
  • Phil can’t believe that his property is worthless: “How could this happen? A ladybug landed on my shoulder today.”
  • I will say this about the Claire storyline: The “let them eat cake” line was well done.

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