S03E05: This week’s Modern Family made me realize something that explains a great deal about the show’s success. And it’s funny that this should occur as a result of this episode, “Hit and Run,” because I would call it, arguably, one of the least funny episodes I’ve seen in a long time. Something about the dialogue this week seems clumsy, overcooked, and out of step.
But once all the plots are set up (Claire is running for city council against David Cross; Phil dedicates himself to being a more hands-on dad; Jay is having trouble with a young client who demands flash and Gloria just wants him to accept her advice; and Mitchell thinks Cameron is too confrontational with strangers), and they merge into a climactic scene involving all of the adult males, things start to pick up on the funny, and, more importantly, it becomes extremely clear to me why I—and everyone else in America—enjoy this show so much: these people really work as both a family and a comedy team.
“If you want to fly, I’m not going to hold your feet to the ground. I want to be the one to push you off the cliff.” – Phil
If you recall last week, Claire’s whole stop-sign expedition didn’t really have much of a conclusion. Apparently, that’s because the writers were planning on picking it up again this week, only with a hike in the stakes: Claire decides to run for city council against the jerk who both denied her the necessary stop sign and had the audacity to put a negative connotation on puggles. This is good news for two reasons. The first is that I imagine Claire running for office has great potential to develop her character and to give Phil some hilarious “the world of politics” B-stories. Secondly, it means we’ll be seeing more of David Cross. Of course, after talking with Cross’ character about this, Claire becomes intimidated, and worries that she will lose.
In the meantime, Phil promises Claire that while she is busy running for office, he will be there to take care of this kids, assuring her of his capability in this realm. Minutes after this promise, Phil gives Luke a black eye, drugs Alex, and overlooks the fact that Haley has lost $900 of her friends’ money trying to buy fake IDs from an untrustworthy character (the same guy who ‘ruined’ the group in last week’s Community—this actor must have “easily hateable” on his resume).
“We just got rear ended! Are you okay?” – Mitchell
“I think I cut the roof of my mouth on the straw!” – Cam
“So, yes.” – Mitchell
Despite its lack of ‘quotable humor’ (as explained above), this is probably my favorite Mitchell/Cam story in quite a while. For once, the two aren’t bickering because one is neat/one is sloppy, or one is high-maintenance/one is more laid back. Although their differences do emerge, it’s not in the same formulaic, “Well, we’ll see who wins this one!” way that we’ve been seeing far too much of. Two incidents early on in the episode show Cam reacting with hostility to strangers with whose behavior he takes issue (one is taking his children to an inappropriate movie, the other commits a hit and run). Both times, Mitchell seems exasperated with Cam. Now, fans of the show since its inception might find this a little odd: the very first Modern Family scene we see of the pair actually has Mitchell verbally attacking a group of strangers who he thinks made homophobic slurs about the two of them, with Cam being the embarrassed one. But, shows do change, and perhaps the creators have decided this kind of confrontational characteristic is better suited for who they want Cam to be. I can live with that, as long as they keep up the “Mitchell and Cam at odds with the world” stories as opposed to all these “Mitchell vs. Cam because one likes Leno and one likes Letterman” stories.
“Police. Aren’t they too busy winning the war on drugs?” – Luke
The Jay/Gloria/Manny story is also a big departure for this household’s archetype. For once, Jay isn’t so much fighting with either his wife or stepson as he is trying not to bother them with his business problems. Jay tries to sell closets (I guess he sells closets) to a young, trend-obsessed CEO played by the great Samm Levine. All Gloria wants is to help, but both Jay and Manny—who is writing a school paper on, of all things, the Mafia—deny her this privilege.
The precious climactic scene is where everything comes to fruition. Once Haley admits that her $900 was stolen by a dishonest fake-ID peddler, Jay, Phil, Cam and a reluctant Mitchell all head out to the guy’s house to get her money back. And: greatness. It’s not so much the slapstick comedy of a terrified Mitchell tackling the runaway man and pulling his pants off. It’s not even a rarely heated Phil’s incredible fist names (England Dan and John Ford Coley). It’s the dynamic of the four men working together to help their family member. Four men who couldn’t fit together any less perfectly in a logical sense work together ideally as a family.
Every beat in this scene is perfect, because the comedy and the fun derives from the closeness we feel to the family at this moment—and of course, this kind of scene would not have worked in Season 1. We earned this moment by sticking with the family and learning about the them over the past two years. We understand that every quirky action each man does is natural and in-character. These are the kinds of things that Modern Family does best: it allows us to invest in worthwhile characters who form a worthwhile family. And though it may not always be the most riotous show on the air, this scene makes it clear to me why Modern Family is so popular. It makes us feel like we’re surrounded by, or even a part of, this terrific family.