S3E11: There is something particularly strange about this week’s episode of Modern Family. Not strange in a bad way—in fact, the episode is consistently funny. On top of this, each of the storylines is legitimately interesting (Mitchell’s and Cam’s started off slow, but got there eventually). The problem I have with the episode is that it has no conclusion. There are a handful of good setups, but nothing ever comes from any of them. And more than anything else, it just feels weird.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.” – Claire
“That’s very comforting coming from a marketing major at a party school.” – Phil
The central plot of the episode is that Phil thinks he’s dying. And it’s just as hilarious as you might expect. During a routine physical, Phil’s doctor notices tenderness under his arm and runs some tests, promising to call if he finds anything. From this moment on, Phil is (not surprisingly) an absolute wreck. He shifts gears back and forth from lashing out at Claire, telling his children—quite unsettlingly—how much he loves them, and asking a relative stranger for advice about death.
To further Phil’s anxiety, he realizes that his “lifetime supply” of razor blades that he won on a game show almost twenty years ago (cut to the most incredible, yet ridiculously silly, flashback of Phil on a 1990s game show, excitedly winning the compensation prize after answering a question incorrectly about pie—I could watch this scene over and over just for his hair) has run out: this is clearly a sign that he is about to die. Combine this with Gloria’s superstitious nightmare, and Phil all but loses it. And again…it’s too funny.
“Perhaps this will sound crazy to you…” – Javier
On the whole, I’d afford Modern Family’s straight-man title to Jay. He’s regularly the most reasonable and levelheaded family member (his two children sometimes rival for the title, but they’re both a bit too high-strung). So it’s fun to see Jay lose his grip a bit—when something really gets to him, Jay is at his comedic peak. He never quite gets emotional, but that’s part of the fun of it: just how unwilling he is to allow himself to actually get upset further fuels his angst. And this week, the cause of Jay’s malaise is, once again, Gloria’s ex-husband Javier (Benjamin Bratt). But it’s not Gloria over whom Jay gets worked up; it’s Manny.
Javier shows up unannounced to take Manny to the horse track. Jay tags along begrudgingly by Gloria’s insistence. However, Jay soon finds himself in combat with Javier over the role of Manny’s father figure. Whereas the smooth, cool Javier teaches Manny about betting on the races via his method of spiritually connecting with the horses and “reading their eyes,” Jay tries to instill the value of hard logic and strategy based on tangible information in order to gamble successfully. Obviously, each man’s lesson is less about horse racing and more about his general ideology and value system. Manny eagerly eats up Javier’s more romantic theories, which rapidly wears at Jay.
“You may be flying high. But pretty soon you’ll be free-falling, Tom Petty. Because that’s you. Petty. Tom Petty. Get it?” – Cam
“About three sentences ago.” – Mitchell
At first, I wasn’t too keen on the Mitchell/Cam storyline. Mitchell comes home with a trophy for being the best environmental lawyer ever (or something), and displays it proudly on the apartment mantle. This prompts Cam to bring out one of his old fishing trophies, placing it next to Mitchell’s award. Mitchell is upset by this, thinking Cam is trying to show him up, and the two erupt into a relatively low-stakes fight. At first, the plotline is little more than a nuisance. It’s the same Mitchell vs. Cam song and dance that has us wondering if the two ever have any non-confrontational days together. But then, something interesting happens.
After talking to Alex, who empathizes with her uncle—putting down both of her intellectually inferior siblings in the process—Mitchell begins to hear what he has been sounding like, and realizes that he’s been acting childish. To rectify things, he goes into Cam’s old boxes and looks through a whole bunch of trophies, hoping to display them all as a surprise. Mitchell has an overt realization that Cam has a hell of a lot more trophies than he had ever realized. And this is where I thought there might be an interesting twist. If Cam, in fact, does have so many bigger, flashier trophies, then why is this simple fishing trophy the one he holds so dear? Why is he so sensitive about Mitchell putting it down?
And these are questions to which we never gets answers. Instead, Mitchell drops the box of trophies, at which point Cam walks in and assumes he destroyed them intentionally. The two never actually make up—they just set aside their differences complacently when they hear the “bad news” surrounding Phil’s health.
And this isn’t the only story that goes unresolved. The Jay/Manny/Javier story never has an ending either. Jay admits in a talking head that it saddens him to be reminded that he’s not Manny’s real father. For a heavy drama, this would be conclusive enough. But Modern Family usually wraps things up with at least some kind of culminating moment of acceptance or victory for a character in this situation. The whole ordeal is never mentioned again, and Javier is used primarily as a joke in the final scene when the family comes together to support Phil and Claire.
Of course, Phil is fine. His doctor returns his calls and confirms that Phil’s health and life are not in danger. The family embraces…although, there are a few missing members: all of Phil’s and Claire’s children. Throughout the episode, we see Haley studying Spanish with Gloria, Alex interacting with Mitchell and Cam, and Luke palling around with the elderly neighbor Walt (Philip Baker Hall) once more. But we never get a real reason for any of these things, or for the kids’ absence at the end of the episode. Was there more written for which the show just didn’t have time? It really seems that way. Walt’s appearance—especially after such a heartfelt introductory episode—seemed almost meaningless. Haley’s brief scene with Gloria brought nothing beyond an opportunity for Phil to interrupt with some bizarre, ominous words. Personally, I’m stumped.
The episode may seem unfinished, but everything we get this week is worth watching. As usual, Phil is the MVP of the episode, bringing hilarity when making small-talk during his checkup, when erupting at Claire, and when professing his love for his children. Oh, and the game show flashback. That glorious game show flashback. Do you think the episode feels incomplete? Is there perhaps more beneath the surface that I’m missing? Do you think any of these stories will build to bigger arcs over the course of the season?