“Three Dinners” is the finest episode of Modern Family this season and one of the best half-hours in the show’s run. Its structure is simple, its humour more refined and less shrill than typical for the sitcom, and the mix of drama with levity balances out just right. Usually when three writers get credit for a television episode, the story could falter due to having too many cooks in the kitchen. Thankfully, this meal – just embrace the food metaphor for this dinner-themed half-hour – hits the sweet spot as it’s a delightful mix of sharp humour and insightful character study.
Abraham Higginbotham, Steven Levitan & Jeffrey Richman wrote the episode (with Levitan also serving as director). They wisely situate almost the entire show within three dinner spaces. Dinner is a time for a family to retreat from their hectic daily lives and catch up with each other, but the most important meal of the day is also a pertinent reminder of how important it is to spend time with the people in our lives. The three writers understand what dinners function as – a time to rekindle with old friends, to escape the doldrums of reality, to sit down with someone you worry about and try to talk them into changing for the better, to propose to the love of your life – and they fit this into a sublime 21 minutes.
At dinner #1, Phil and Claire go out for dinner with Haley so that they can discuss her future. The parents worry that her poor attendance at community college, frequent sleeping-in and lack of drive will not get her anywhere, and they want to set Haley straight.
Throughout this season, Sarah Hyland (with the help of the show’s writers) is bringing more dimensions to the role of the typically vain, vapid Haley. This week, she confronts her parents about how they think of her too much as a shallow teenager. She reveals her plans to take a business class and become a stylist, inspired by feedback from her blog. Self-sufficient and sharp in focus – Haley even shrugs off the mojitos her parents order so that her attention doesn’t wane – she is starting to prove herself as a character with purpose and direction. Hyland doesn’t even need to raise her voice or succumb to throw-away one-liners that mock her ordinarily superficial behaviour. The writers are giving her room to grow out of the shell the character has lived in for many years, similar to Alex’s breakthrough from last week’s episode.