S3E10: If you happened to catch my recap for Modern Family’s Thanksgiving episode “Punkin Chunkin,” then you might recall that I considered that an absolutely perfect episode of the series. The primary reason: everything it in seemed completely organic. The humor, the emotionality, the characters’ interactions. Nothing was forced or thrown together, like in so many Modern Family episodes of the recent past—and like in this week’s (almost) Christmas-themed episode, “Express Christmas.”
Now, I realize something: that’s the point. The entire holiday of Express Christmas™, invented at the last minute by the family as a way to spend December 16 (the last day they’ll all be together all year, thanks to disparate vacation plans) together in a festive manner, is by its very nature a hectic, spastic, uneven concept. The mood of the episode definitely reflects this—in that sense, it’s a victory. However, this comes at quite a sacrifice: enjoyableness. While the episode is not exactly bad, it’s certainly not one of the show’s better. At times, it doesn’t even feel like a Modern Family episode (like when a truck repeatedly runs over the family’s valuable possessions in a cartoonish manner). But I suppose the show does deserve some accolades for trying something new, both in its tone, and in the episode’s most obvious endeavor: unusual pairings.
"Don't luke back. Never luke back." - Gloria
Group 1: Gloria and Luke. Their task: getting the Christmas tree angel, which Claire’s and Mitchell’s mother made for them, out of the attic. Does it work?: Luke is, in my opinion, the funniest character on the show. But he needs an appropriate partner—either a foil, like the uptight Manny (the two of them have a great back-and-forth in the cold open, wherein Luke bates Manny about the inevitability of his being kidnapped while vacationing in Mexico), or a “partner in crime,” like his space cadet father Phil. Gloria is wacky in her own way, and a way I rarely find too appealing. Nearly all of what the Gloria/Luke routine offers us is jokes about her accent, specifically “look” vs. “Luke” wordplay. It’s kind of a waste.
"M-m-mint condition... f-f-fair condition... d-d-damaged." - Phil
Group 2: Manny and Phil. Their task: grocery shopping, and picking up a mint-condition Joe DiMaggio baseball card for Jay from a shady Craigslist seller. Does it work?: It’s definitely a step up from Group 1, but still falls short of the duo’s potential. Here, we’ve got two of the show’s power players. Somehow, even Phil getting accidentally tasered by a nervous Manny doesn’t even make me laugh that much. The heart just wasn’t there. It’s asking for a lot to expect that every pairing in a group so large will give some sort of significant character development, but I was at least hoping for a stronger insight into these particular relationships. Manny and Phil seem like they could be close friends in regular life, and their relationship should be fruitful and interesting. Instead, we just see Manny preoccupied over being kidnapped and Phil jerking with electromagnetic charge.
"Put a cork in it." - Jay
"Let it scab, Jay!" - Cam
Group 3: Cam and Jay (this is where the pairings begin to pick up). Their task: wrap presents. Does it work?: Cam and Jay is not one we haven’t seen before, which is likely because it’s one that the writers seem to have a slightly better idea of what to do with. Although this episode’s Cam/Jay formula felt a lot like the traditional Phil/Jay formula, it is markedly different in some very subtle ways that I had to convince myself after the episode we’re just my own wishful thinking. Cam gives Jay a cork from the first wine bottle they ever shared during the first football game they ever watched together. Jay is underwhelmed, and has no idea what Cam is talking about. The difference between this and a Phil/Jay story: Phil is always striving for Jay’s approval, and is always quite defensive about not getting it. Here, Cam gets a bit down on himself for being too “pushy” and overly sentimental—he doesn’t so much feel as if he needs Jay to validate him, he’s just the sort of person who can’t help but love and crave others’ love. Grasping at straws, maybe. But I like this storyline, and it has the best payoff of the episode.
"Your entire life has been leading up to this moment." - Claire
Group 4: Claire and Haley (nothing new, but they actually get along here). Their task: gift shopping. Does it work?: Only because of Claire’s speech to Haley about her having trained her whole life as a master shopper for this moment, and encouraging her to save the day by getting all of the family’s presents in record time. It’s sweet, in a weird way. Otherwise, it’s just silly and pointless.
"I have two daddies." - Lily
"He gets that." - Mithcell
Group 5: Mitchell and Alex (and Lily). Their task: Christmas tree. Does it work?: Yes. Best group of the night. Not so much because of the follies that undertake them—they manage to tick off the tree salesman and then damage their tree irreparably when it flies off their car because they were the ones that tied it up there (because, of course, they ticked off the tree salesman)—but because we see that these two “man-without-a-country” figures are actually perfectly suited for one another’s company. They are both cut from the same mold. They’re the brains of the family. The uptight, narcissistic, dissatisfied nitpickers—they even have the same obsessive tree qualifications. They’re the put-upon. The constantly-at-odds. The outsiders. Actually, this is the one duo that I really hope to see more of.
So, after just about every group fails to some degree, the family comes together in one explosive Express Christmas, all getting fed up with the disasters and calling it quits on the holiday. That is, until the unlikely figure of Gloria points out what is really bothering two of the most vocal complainers (Claire and Mitchell): they miss their mother. The opening of the episode has the whole family, these two especially, mocking their mother’s holiday e-mail while celebrating the fact that she won’t be spending the holiday with them this year. But Gloria provokes the real sadness in both of them over the absence of Dede, which is especially surprising/sweet due to her rocky relationship with Claire.
But not all the credit goes to Gloria—Jay calms the family down just long enough to shepherd them outside, where he has set up a snow machine on the front lawn for the entire family to play in together. Cam, realizing that Jay is in fact a softy underneath, manages a hug out of his father-in-law, which is a nice moment, if not a bit overdone.
Like I said, the episode is disjointed, it’s frenzied, and above all, a lot of it is forced. But in all honesty…when you see the entire Modern Family family, Stella the dog included, playing together on a snowy lawn while a uniquely sincere Gloria delivers a sweet monologue about family…you’d have to be a Grinch not to appreciate it at least a little.