The end of Modern Family’s fifth season, the first one where I am beginning to doubt its chances of breaking an Emmy record by winning its fifth straight mantle for Best Comedy, also happens to air around the same time that Louie is starting up again. Both shows are terrific in different ways, but Louie kicked off its fourth season with such hilarity, such unpredictable fury, such experimental savviness, that any other television comedy airing in its shadow probably feels staler than it should be. Louis C.K. grounds his comedy in bittersweet truth, filling his shows with edge and sensitivity, fantasy and harsh reality. There is no show currently doing more to revolutionize the genre of sitcom television than Louie, while few programs are doing less to break from the mould than Modern Family.
Now, that is not to completely put down Modern Family. ABC’s comedy has had several terrific episodes this season, notably “Three Dinners,” “The Old Man & The Tree” and “Las Vegas.” However, the show has piled up two clumsily written episodes in a row, while Louie burst back onto the airwaves with two superb half-hours. Modern Family is going to have to work really hard to appeal to Emmy voters and convince them that a season filled with average, laugh-light half-hours deserves to make television history.
Average would also be a perfect word to describe “Message Received,” an episode that squanders its interesting plots with contrived story beats. To nobody’s surprise, Cam has overspent on his wedding to Mitchell, saved for May sweeps but perhaps too drawn out to generate the same excitement around other sitcom weddings (here’s looking at you, Friends and The Big Bang Theory). Both husbands have a plan to get some quick cash – you know, the money that a middle-school teacher and lawyer do not have in savings somewhere. Mitch wants to sell a limited edition Spider-Man comic – his explanation about how he relates to Peter Parker is sweet, but maybe a bit too obvious – while Cam feels that his belt buckle, once worn by Wyatt Earp, could ensure they can deal with their ballooned budget on, ahem, balloons.
In the Dunphy household, Haley finds a box with many of Claire and Phil’s mementos. (I guess items of sentimental value are just prominent in this episode). While listening to Phil’s answering machine, the kids overhear Claire’s messages that explains to Phil that she accidentally got pregnant – and he’s the father. With this ‘mistake’ now horrifically out in the open, the kids decide to prank their parents with some manipulated phone messages of their own. I mean, if you were found out you were conceived in the ride back from a Duran Duran concert, you would want to serve a cold dish to your parents. (The best material this week comes from the young actors, from Lily’s Ring Pop manipulation to some funny banter between the Dunphy kids, which this season has really lacked.)Next
Meanwhile, the third story, where Jay, Manny and Gloria press each other to confront something they don’t like doing – eating blood sausages, eating picles, rubbing Stella’s stomach tenderly – is tired and redundant. The set-up is the same as usual, as Jay wants his son to be brave and face a fear, Gloria scolds him for being a hypocrite and then vice versa. It is likely a story that segues into Jay confronting his discomfort with next week’s gay wedding. However, his damaging words to Mitchell feel baseless, more of a way to set up drama leading up to the two-part wedding finale that will air over the next two weeks than a reasonable expectation of the character. Although Jay has struggled with his views in past episodes, his eruption of intolerance is too much to bear and does not work.
The storylines in “Message Received,” which comes from showrunner Steven Levitan, only work if you can buy two things. First, we must accept that nowhere in the prior 117 episodes has any character made a reference to Claire’s premature pregnancy with Haley, which influenced her decision to marry Phil. Second, we must accept that Jay has neglected to mention his discomfort with going to a gay wedding for an entire season – and then speaks up about it the week after he confides in Mitchell about one of his own securities (from “Sleeper”). It is a bit too much to handle, especially for a series when the characters are usually so in sync with what has happened in past episodes. These are the defining twists of two subplots, but the contrivances are more distracting than refreshing.
At its best, Modern Family and Louie have a couple of things in common: both shows base their storylines in the experiences of its writers. (Check out this acceptance speech at the WGAs a few years ago, where Modern Family‘s writing staff explains the elements they borrowed from their daily lives.) Also, both deal with agony and ecstasy (although mostly the agony) of raising children, exploring family dynamics in honest ways. However, Modern Family keeps striking chords of falseness, which only seem more tepid when compared to a show as structurally daring and bracingly honest as Louie. This week’s stellar return of C.K.’s show only exacerbates the mediocrity of a series that is not up to its usual Emmy-winning form.Previous