One of Modern Family’s biggest feats since it became one of television’s most beloved and awarded comedies is how the writing team has been able to set up at least three storylines per episode. Since each episode must feature all components of the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan – especially since all of the actors get a hefty paycheque per episode – the 22 minutes must fit in a bunch of plots, each with its own beginning, middle and end. Usually, the show’s strongest episodes revolve around one main family event, whether it is a dinner or birthday celebration. The more subplots and storylines that the show’s writers stuff into an episode, the fewer credible character-driven moments there are.
Larry’s Wife, the third episode of season five, has six storylines compressed into around 22 minutes of television and it is a mess from start to finish. The subplots include two from Jay and Gloria’s family, two from Cam and Mitch’s family and two from the Dunphys.
Jay decides to take Manny to see the vigilante classic Death Wish at a repertory theatre instead of The Sound of Music, an apt metaphor for him trying to shy his son away from his ceaselessly romantic outlooks on life and to realize that he should act more from gut impulses. Meanwhile, Gloria calls a priest to help her deal with Fulgencio, as she believes her infant son is cursed because of an ancient family tradition.
These collections of plots receive, in total, around four minutes of total screen time; consequently, they feel rushed through. Gloria spends a long time retelling (to the camera) about the curses in her family, but once the priest comes over, there is not much going on. The series’ continual references to Gloria’s Latin American mysticism keep feeling culturally insensitive, as well.
Further, Jay telling Manny to refrain from keeping his thoughts bottled up is a great moment – especially since that father-son duo gets fewer bonding sessions than the adorable pairing of Phil and Luke. However, its set-up is under-developed and hurried to get to a great moment where Manny loses his temper on a moviegoer chatting loudly on his phone. (Maybe the moment was more satisfying since people on their cell phones at the movies is a pet peeve of mine).
In another bunch of stories, Cam is going haywire trying to organize his wedding, and decides to distract himself by doing some more planning – a funeral for their cat Larry’s wife. He hopes this celebration will appease Lily’s grief. Mitch, on the other hand, is unhappy that his fiancée is trying to keep the entire wedding planning to himself, which launches him back into an obsessive-compulsive disorder (which, strangely, went unchecked for the first four seasons).
The sudden appearance of Mitchell’s OCD is distracting. Although the character likes to be neat and organized, the excuse to have Cam’s overbearing attitude gets Mitch to descend into an intensified cleanliness, that feels more suited to the whims of furthering the conflict than being true to the character. It is unconvincing that this characterization went unaddressed for 98 episodes. The Cam and Mitch dynamic in this episode is also reminiscent of almost every other ordeal they’ve gone through on Modern Family – flamboyant Cam is shying attention away from Mitch’s accomplishments – and the two of them aren’t even married yet.
Oh, and there’s an always welcome but completely bizarre cameo from Dylan, Haley’s long-time ex-boyfriend. Reid Ewing, who always brings gumption to his character’s chivalrous and aloof personality, could have reeled more laughs from the moment he shows up as the gravedigger at the cat’s funeral, but his presence makes such little sense that one is too distracted to hear the jokes.Next
On the Dunphy front, Phil has reached a hot streak as a realtor by charming his divorcee clients – he tells one, “You’re not going to be alone, you’re going to get a loan.” He spends more time catering to their needs as a way to score some new sales than catering to his wife’s needs, which include grocery shopping and yard work while she runs to the office. Down in the Dunphy basement, Luke invites some friends over for a poker game, much to the chagrin of his older sisters who must bear with being the butt of the pranks Luke’s friends pull when he loses a hand.
It is clear that the best chemistry on the show still belongs to the loving, if constantly sniping and disagreeing, Phil and Claire Dunphy (there’s a reason why Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen are favourites on Emmy night). The episode’s finest, freshest moment comes at the end, when Phil bumps into a trio of his divorcee clients at the supermarket, where Claire is also shopping. Claire then play-acts as an ex-client of her husband’s, accentuating how well he treated her while selling her a home. It turns out that she is a better salesperson that her hubby.
As satisfying as that scene is, their teenage kids get little to do back at home. The entirety of the poker game happens off-screen and the actors must reciprocate with dialogue explaining who lost what bet when upstairs. Considering how the young actors’ comic timing typically comes up aces, it is a shame there is such little time spent with them in the episode. (Note to writers: more brother-sisters bonding between the Dunphy kids!)
There is a lot of plot for writer Bill Wrubel to condense into a half-hour of television, and it proves to be too much. To keep the stories rolling, Wrubel recoils to jokes that bring up the most one-dimensional descriptions of the characters: Haley is dumb, Alex is smart, Manny is effeminate, Jay is cranky, Gloria is superstitious, Phil is careless, Claire is controlling, Cam is overbearing, Mitch is cautious.
By trying to stuff in too many plot details, Wrubel must flatten the characters to these base personalities. When the characters are this flat, the jokes fall flat as well. If this streak continues, perhaps the Modern Family writers need to reexamine how to structure their episodes, so that each storyline gets a proper treatment.Previous