‘Modern Family’ Recap: Clown Funerals, Spy Pens—Did Luke Write This One?

Send Out the ClownsS3E18: If the words “scrapped together” have ever applied to an episode of television, that episode was this week’s Modern Family 

The ABC hit is always an energetic show—it has an impressive pacing when it comes to dialogue and gags. That being said, it usually maintains a calm mood to it, so that even though things are moving quickly, they rarely seem hectic. But “Send Out the Clowns” is an exception. Everything about the episode is chaotic. The storylines, the dialogue, and the characters’ behavior and judgment all seem to be hopped up on some kind of hallucinogenic uppers. 
Unfortunately, the comedy suffers throughout, and there are few jokes in the episode that actually land. Even more of a tragedy is what happens to the characters: they cease to be the people we know, instead opting for bizarre, off-the-wall oddballs, existing only to further jagged, harebrained plots—and this is especially unforgivable considering, as said, none of it is all that funny.

“Spy Pen? Second oldest trick in the book. A real man would have just poisoned the soup.” – Mitzi

Phil is always operating at 11, but his mania this week is particularly noteworthy. Phil is on edge because he has a big house to sell, but his nemesis Mitzi Ross, a devious rival real estate agent, swoops in to usurp his clients.

I don’t know too much about the cutthroat real estate business, but Mitzi’s ploy of tricking Phil’s clients into believing that he shoved her violently into their bushes seems a little Loony Tunes. Modern Family doesn’t work when it abandons its tone of realism altogether. It is funny to see the family—Phil, Luke, Cam and the rest of the head-in-the-clouds non-Pritchetts—juxtaposed against some real world sincerity, but when the world that they live in is the source of madness, the show’s identity and its humor suffers. Zaniness like this is better suited for shows that are established as such, like 30 Rock or Community.

“I was fake crying before I could walk. How do you think I got out of eating all those salads?” – Luke

Phil spends the entire episode flipping back and forth between his uplifting embracement of ethics and hard work and a cynical misanthropy brought on by Mitzi’s antics. This is a good example of how the episode as a whole feels: totally reactionary, almost completely without footing, and shooting off in ten different directions.

Eventually, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get back at Mitzi and reclaim his territory, Phil and Luke institute a very predictable gambit, wherein Luke plays his “innocent kid” routine for Mitzi in the supermarket, guilting her into giving the clients back to Phil. We’re not supposed to know what they’re up to, but we do. It’s painfully obvious to the viewer. And the conclusive scene of Phil’s giddy acceptance of the idea of manipulating your enemies is so out of character it’s bothersome.

“What’s the trick to those fake tears?” – Phil

“The Three Stooges are all dead.” – Luke

But compared to Jay, Phil is his old self this week. When Manny tells his parents that he has made friends with Griffin—a kid so cool that Stella the dog perks up at the sound of his name (the funniest moment this week)—Jay is practically infatuated. He acts like Phil did with Dylan, only without the tech-savvy or the ability to pull off a leather jacket. Jay assumes that Griffin is only hanging out with Manny to get closer to Jay; he considers himself the picture of a cool role model. In reality, Griffin is hanging out with Manny to better ogle Gloria, on whom he has a blatant crush.

Jay doesn’t work as the fool. He’s established as a figure of sensibility and deserved respect. Yes, he has his flaws. But they are flaws befitting his dignity and “machismo.” He’s hypercompetitive and stubborn. Those are ways an imperfect Jay works. Fawning over a teenaged boy in hopes of being validated as a cool adult? Not at all in coordination with who he is or is supposed to be.

And although Manny is generally pure Manny through the episode—his institution of “Japanese night” is one of the episode’s better jokes—there are a couple of things that stand out as obscenely un-Manny. First and foremost, he is willing to lie to a young boy in order to get closer to his sister. Although Manny is consistently girl crazy, he’s also terrifically honest, with a tremendous guilty streak. Secondly (and less importantly), isn’t the idea of Manny being willing to ride Jay’s motorcycle completely out of character? Or has this affinity for the bike ever come up before?

“It’s fine. All seltzer under the bridge.” – Cam

Finally, the titular storyline, and the best of the three major plots. Cam’s old clown college professor’s death reunites him with some old clowning buddies, particularly Lewis (Bobby Cannavale), his old partner in the “Fizbo & Lewis” routine. They were practically the Beatles. Of children’s parties.

Lewis is a bawdy sort who still resents Cam for dropping their act to devote himself to Mitchell years back. However, their reunion sparks the old passions again, and Cam agrees to get back in the game for a few shows. Cam is on Cloud 9 with Lewis around. They plunge full-force into the clowning routine, entertaining Lily to no end.

“I am a clown. It’s who I am. If you squeeze me, do I not honk?—Eyeroll!” – Cam

“Oh, like I had a choice?” – Mitchell

The larger story here erupts when Cam addresses Mitchell’s lack of respect for his life’s passion. This mainly serves, unfortunately, to remind us of how incompatible Mitchell and Cam seem to be. Even the conclusive scene of Mitchell finally laughing at one of Cam’s acts—an act that goes horribly awry when a devastated Lewis attacks Cam for breaking up the team in favor of his family again—aren’t enough to instill a confidence in their relationship.

Maybe it’s unlikely, but I’d like to see an episode devoted to telling us when and how Mitchell and Cam met and fell in love. What brought these extremely contrasting people together? There is something in there that sometimes works—episodes like the original “Fizbo” from Season 1 and the more recent “Punkin Chunkin” do give us clear cut evidence that Mitchell and Cam work as a couple and are better people for having each other in their lives. But too often, we have episodes like “Send Out the Clowns”—or plenty of far more volatile examples that have been peppered throughout Season 3—that make us wonder why they’re even together.

A minor one-note story involves Claire trying to convince Haley and Alex to friend her on Facebook, only to regret it when they finally do, realizing that she has a lot more to hide than they do. Claire has led a wild life, a lot of which was caught on camera by old friends ever willing to post these incriminating photos on her wall.

Modern Family’s greatest fault is forgetting its characters. This show is so popular because of how well crafted, believable and lovable the people in it are. When that is abandoned, you might as well be watching a whole different show. Do you think it works when Modern Family goes a little looser, like on this week’s episode? Are Phil and Jay still funny when they’re not being Phil and Jay? Let us know in the comments section or on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.