There’s a conundrum that comes with just about any show, but particularly a sitcom, that runs for multiple season. Over time the characters become very familiar, and with a sitcom, so does the structure. Every sitcom, even Modern Family, which at least fel somewhat unique when it first premiered seven years ago, ends up falling into a pattern of complacency. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, hence the conundrum; after all, the appeal of the format is largely its predictable structure. I think that familiarity is even more welcome when it comes to holiday episodes. For me at least, there’s a certain amount of cheerful anticipation—I’m not ready to go as far as “excitement”—when a holiday episode rolls around because, for the most part, you know what you’re getting.

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Each holiday often comes with its own typical plot points. Christmas is a time to get sentimental, the New Year is for sloppy emotions and regret, and Halloween is a chance to let loose a little. Modern Family has a history of solid Halloween episodes, as the occasion usually plays to the strengths of the ensemble cast. “Halloween 4: The Revenge Of Rod Skyhook” isn’t quite up to the standard set by previous seasons, but it is a low-stakes, generally funny episode that manages to work in a little character and plot progression with the Halloween hijinks.

You wouldn’t know it by the setup though, which is very familiar. No matter how much Halloween may be about the children, it’s the parents that usually can’t get their acts together. The Dunphys and Pritchetts in particular are always embroiled in some drama, and in the case of Jay and Cam here, drama that’s built on a years-long grudge. So, of course, the kids suffer. Lily, who wants nothing more than to get her night of throwing away apples to make room for more candy started, has to once again struggle to get noticed while Cam, dressed as Batman, tracks down a kid who he calls his “Halloween nemesis.” As Mitchell kindly points out, Cam seems to have more nemeses than Batman. The kids play a similar role elsewhere too, looking to stay separate from their parents in the hopes of forging their own path forward, as Luke attempts to throw his own party without Claire or Phil intervening, and Manny chooses to go to the “popular” party in the hopes that someone there will appreciate his Trumbo (Dalton, not Mark) costume. I’ll just skip over the idea that someone at the popular party, rather than Luke’s, will understand that costume.

In almost any other episode, these plots would qualify as rote and redundant. Within a Halloween episode though, I’m a little more forgiving. After all, Halloween is all about trying on new identities—and devouring booze and candy, obviously—so it makes sense that all the kids here are grappling with what makes them who they are. In fact, this season has mostly done a good job of actually showing some growing pains when it comes to Manny, Luke, Haley, and to a lesser extent, Alex and Lily. Modern Family, out of necessity, has always avoided putting the kids through any meaningful changes. Just last year the show couldn’t find a way to create conflict or intrigue out of Alex attending college. This season, things are a bit different. Manny and Luke, two characters who have floundered in recent season, are finally being given something more to dig into, grappling with the messy feelings that come with entering your senior year, and Haley is showing that she‘s an adept promoter.

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So, what makes “Halloween 4: The Revenge Of Rod Skyhook” perhaps better than it should be is the underlying character work masked by the rather simplistic setup. There’s nothing too interesting in the story of Luke throwing a party while his parents try to keep their noses out of his business, so the show switches up the typical narrative by having the party be a complete bust. That leads to more meaningful moments than one could expect if the show had followed the more predictable path. So we get Phil and Claire trying to figure out how to help their son without embarrassing him, leading to the emotional catharsis that comes with seeing Phil actually succeed, with the help of Haley and Claire, in resurrecting Luke’s party.

Similarly, Gloria, Jay, and Manny’s plot—sorry Joe, you still don’t matter—is far from interesting when it’s once again going to the well of the Jay-Earl feud, this time complete with Jesus and Satan costumes, but it does manage to do the unthinkable: find a little sympathy for Manny. I say “unthinkable” because for so long Manny has been nothing but a caricature, a sensitive kid that, more often than not, the show asks us to laugh at rather than find endearing or charming. Such a reaction isn’t always unwarranted, as Manny can be quite tiresome at times, but the show has never really given Manny any chance to express his own feelings about being an outcast. Instead, Modern Family filters his perspective through his parents or Luke. Here, he actually gets to talk about how he’s always been told that he’ll find his people eventually and lead an interesting life, and that he’s sick of waiting to be understood. He doesn’t fit in and he knows it, and he’s sick of acting like it’s okay. What could be more relatable than feeling like you don’t belong? It’s about time Modern Family gave Manny a voice.

Giving these characters some depth eight seasons into the show’s run is the best way to make sure the stories feel fresh. A sitcom can rely on familiarity and recognizable structure, but it can’t forget that these characters need to continue to grow and be challenged by new situations. “Halloween 4: The Revenge Of Rod Skyhook” doesn’t manage that quite like the last two episodes, but it does squeeze some necessary character progression out of what’s otherwise a perfectly fine holiday episode.

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Stray observations

  • I’m sure it’s not a wholly original idea, but I thought Claire’s “June Cleaver” costume was pretty great.
  • I appreciate puns of all kinds, so Jay guessing that Manny’s Dalton Trumbo costume, complete with bathtub, was “Harriet Tubman” made me happy.
  • Lily snaps her fingers when she’s talking tough. Mitch’s reply to Cam: “I told you she was too young for West Side Story.”
  • “The Days of Red Vines and Roses.”
  • Alex’s love life is really starting to pick up: “Last week an Uber driver asked to see my feet.”
  • Earl dressed as the Devil was such an obvious choice, but I still chuckled when he suddenly appeared in the frame.
  • I agree with Cam: the moment where Mitchell stood up for him was very sweet.

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