S3E17: At the beginning of this week’s Modern Family, I was a little nervous. The Dunphy household’s storyline focuses on each of the females suffering from a pretty volatile case of PMS—this is a subject matter that could easily come across tasteless and sexist. At the forefront of the episode, it seems that the show is just using Claire’s, Haley’s and Alex’s mood swings and difficulty focusing for laughs, creating humor at the expense of the women, and, in a way, at the women in general—rather, at the image of women that is often propagated in comedic film and television. I might not have assumed this from the Modern Family we knew back in Season One, when every story had a substantial grounding to it. But I have become stingy with my benefits of the doubt when it comes to this show. It has let me down before.
But this episode feels far more like a Season Oner than anything else lately. I am glad to say that Modern Family proves my immediate inklings about its intentions wrong—by the end of the episode, you are sympathizing far more with Claire, Haley and Alex than you are with the slightly chauvinistic (though not really ill-intentioned) Phil and Luke. Admittedly, it skates on thin ice the whole way through—even when Claire, Haley and Alex are depicted in a heroic light, it seems a bit too close to falling over the edge, back towards the image apparently fostered by the episode’s opening. But it never quite falls—in that, there is a pretty large victory. As is there in a scene of Luke completely covered in fake blood. But that goes without saying.
The elaborateness of Phil’s plot further broadens, and we end up with Luke covered entirely in fake blood (with Phil casually remarking, “I’ll just run him over to the doctor’s!”). Claire, on her game at all times, realizes what Phil is up to and takes issue with is deceitful handling of the matter at hand. From this point forward, the house is split, women vs. men.
Leap Day also has another significance to the family: it’s Cam’s birthday—which makes him ten, by his count, and forty, by math’s. While this episode isn’t quite as large a culprit of the problem as many of its recent predecessors, it does resurface the consistent problem I have had with Cam throughout Season 3. He’s completely childish and self-involved, whereas the man we met in Season 1 was mature, nurturing and selfless. But at least this week, Cam has a bit of a redeemer.
Mitchell works very hard to plan an extremely thoughtful surprise birthday celebration for Cam: a Wizard of Oz themed party in their house. However, there’s a backfire: Mitchell remembers that Cam’s family farm was recently destroyed by a tornado, putting a damper on the whole Oz theme. Thus, Mitchell scrambles to come up with an alternative plan, and books a boat party at the last minute.
And at the even laster minute, everything goes wrong. The harbor reeks of a rotting beached whale nearby. The boat can only fit thirty people (apparently, the family has friends now). And when Gloria punches the boat captain (we’ll get to that), the whole party is canceled—but not before Cam learns that Mitchell only planned the whole ordeal two hours prior.
Throughout the episode, Cam proudly declares it his tenth birthday (due to only ten February 29s having passed since he was born). But what Mitchell eventually comes to realize is that this isn’t just his partner being cute—Cam is legitimately uncomfortable with turning forty. This is why he is making such a big deal out of the party. So Mitchell does what he can to throw Cam the best tenth birthday party he can imagine: the entire family relocates to a nearby trapeze-inclusive amusement park. And Cam couldn’t be happier.
If more focus was paid to Cam’s aversion to aging, rather than just Mitchell’s expositional talking head, I would call this storyline a big winner. Although Cam does embody the Season 3 Cam I have come to dislike quite a bit, it seems more justified in this kind of story. As a standalone episode—discounting the pattern of this kind of behavior his character has embraced—I’d say there’s no problem with it at all. But let’s keep it to a minimum. Strictly episodes that focus on the fear of aging.
When everything goes awry at the harbor, Phil explodes. He becomes an emotional wreck, explaining to his wife and daughters that he is just overcome with confusion and conflicting emotions, and that he can barely make sense of his thoughts. Obviously to the audience, but not to Phil, this proves to Claire, Haley and Alex that he knows what they’re going through, as he is experiencing the same. They forgive him enough to insist passionately to a stubborn trapezesmith to open the exhibit up despite the late hour so that Phil might have the Leap Night he so passionately dreamed of. Although he seems to have learned nothing by the end of it, he’s just happy that his family isn’t mad at him anymore. And, more importantly, that he got to trapeze. To sum up the most important plot line of the episode: it is respectable both its (as it turns out) not parodical depiction of what women have to go through every month, and is honest with its depiction of men handling it: in short, that they don’t particularly mean any harm, they’re just not really sure what to do or say.
Gloria and Jay have a story that works just fine, but gets overshadowed by the far superior plotlines described above. Gloria is upset with Jay for not fighting some jackass at the sports bar who was rude to her. Jay insists that it’s idiotic to start fights—although he does pride himself on having set straight a few jerks in his day. Eventually, Jay begins to feel insecure that he’s not “that guy” anymore—just as Gloria realizes, after fighting with her ex-husband on the phone over his failure to keep his weekend commitment to Manny, that she prefers that Jay is level-headed. The two don’t discuss this before Jay begins mouthing off to the above described boat captain. But he never resorts to violence. Gloria does when the man insults Jay for being old. Nothing exemplary, but nothing uninteresting either. Mostly just adequate filler.
Modern Family has had its ups and downs, but it proves with this week’s “Leap Day” that it is still capable of the depth and charm it was back in its heyday. Although far from devoid of a few misplaced traits, the episode is sweet, smarter than it would seem at the beginning (which is the most impressive part), and definitely funny. What did you think of “Leap Day?” Did it handle its issues tastefully? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter @Hollywood.com and @MichaelArbeiter.