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Too many subplots make for an overstuffed Modern Family

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One of Modern Family‘s greatest strengths has always been its cast. It’s a dynamic, funny ensemble, where everyone brings something different to the table. That means that, in the show’s best episodes, there are various types of comedy, keeping the show from falling into a dull, predictable groove. If one aspect of the episode isn’t working, there’s usually another that’s carrying the dramatic and comedic weight. Sometimes though, Modern Family sticks to its core cast a little too much. When the entire gang is together in once place, it works, but when everyone is off on their own adventures, like in this week’s episode, things tend to go off the rails because everything is so scattered.

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“Express Yourself” contains four separate storylines that have no real connection with one another. Most sitcoms struggle to balance two or three storylines in a single episode, so Modern Family trying to balance four is certainly ambitious. The result though is an episode that’s completely overstuffed. Think, for a second, about what’s involved with bringing four storylines into a half-hour comedy. Let’s do some math (thankfully for me, simple math). A half-hour slot allows about 22 minutes of actual episode airtime, which means that with four storylines operating at once, each storyline will get about five-and-a-half minutes to tell a full story, complete with setup, conflict, action, jokes, and resolution. That’s a tall task, and “Express Yourself” crumbles under the pressure.

The failure isn’t solely due to the fact that the show has to balance four separate plots, but that it stuffs each of them full of information and rushed character progression. So, when Andy (remember him?) and Haley have a wild night out on the town, which leads to them heading to Vegas, it’s not just a strictly comedic plotline. Instead, the show tries to shoehorn in an emotional lesson, with Andy and Haley learning to accept that their differences is what they love about one another. That revelation not only falls flat because we’ve been there before in a previous episode, but also because there’s no time within “Express Yourself” for the emotions to be meaningfully explored.

Cam and Mitchell’s subplot is similarly overstuffed. The basic premise is fine, with Cam’s sister Pam staying with them for three weeks after her husband left her. From there though the show piles on detail after detail. There’s Mitchell worrying about Pam’s effect on Lily, which leads to him pulling out his eyebrows, which is apparently a thing he does. There’s the strange sleep apnea bit, which is really just an excuse to get Mitchell out of the house and into Jay’s storyline. Then, there’s the tension between Cam and Pam. It’s all too much to handle in such a short amount of time. The payoff works well, with Mitchell using the sage words of Madonna to get Pam to see herself as an independent woman, but the journey there is disjointed. Maybe if “Express Yourself” had time to explore the dynamic between Pam and Cam the whole subplot would work out better, but as it is, it’s a mess, all because Modern Family piles on numerous subplots.

The above two storylines should be enough for any single sitcom episode, but “Express Yourself” piles on two more. It’s no wonder that this episode is so overstuffed though, as the two remaining stories are so empty of significance, so dull and pointless, that they’d struggle to carry an episode on their own. The worst of the bunch takes place in the Pritchett house, where Jay has decided that he’s renovating the master bathroom, which of course has led to weeks of delays, cramped living quarters, and general family tension. The problem, again, isn’t in the setup—though “bumbling husband overestimates his abilities to fix something” has been done to death in the worlds of sitcoms—but rather in the sloppy execution. It’s clear that Jay is struggling with his retirement, that he feels an intense need to keep himself busy. It’s a note that the show has been hitting for a few episodes now, and yet “Express Yourself” plays this character insight off like fresh knowledge. Jay spells it all out at the end of the episode, telling Gloria (and the audience, via interview) that he realizes now that the renovation project is him trying to figure out who he is now that he’s retired. Having Jay lay out the subtext is bad enough as it is, but when you consider that this is a revelation Jay’s already had once or twice since his retirement, the lack of fresh insight becomes all the more frustrating.

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As usual, Claire and Phil fare a little bit better just because those two have a reliable chemistry, but their adventures in staying awake all night so that they can take a last-minute trip to Paris is just as flimsy and underwhelming as Jay’s post-retirement identity crisis. There’s a funny bit where, after coffee and exercise fail to keep the married couple awake, Claire resorts to putting on different Halloween masks and scaring Phil, but it’s the lone solid moment they get. It turns out that watching people try to stay awake isn’t actually very engaging, and even worse, Modern Family fails to make it funny. That’s “Express Yourself,” and so much of this lackluster season in general: fitfully engaging and often unfunny.

Stray observations

  • Has there ever been a more self-aware character moment than when Alex says “I don’t matter” as Phil continues to talk?
  • Phil continually trying out nonsense French statements was a decent bit.
  • “Grab some scissors and run back to mama!”
  • “So Pam got left.”
  • Now that the season is approaching its end, what are everyone’s thoughts so far? I feel like this has been an almost resoundingly bad season, but I want to know what the rest of you think.
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