Even when Modern Family feels hackneyed or rushed, it is hitting its laugh marks. You cannot help but admire the jokes that hit, even if the tone or pacing is off. An episode as manic and overstuffed as “Sleeper” should not work at all, but the cast manages to make the comedy beats work. It also proves that you can have only one good storyline and still make an episode worthwhile.
This week’s half-hour capitalizes on a relationship the show focuses on too little, that between Ed O’Neill’s Jay and Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Mitch. “Sleeper” focuses on this difficult father-son bond with honesty and poignancy, almost enough to make you forget how little the comic timing works.
The episode begins with Jay and Mitch at the mall. Mitch sits down and pretends to play a piano that is making music on its own, while Jay marvels at his ability. Instead of rejoicing at fooling his dad, Mitch snipes at his father for ignoring him. “You honestly thought that I became a piano virtuoso?” he asks. Mitch is in disbelief that his father knows so little about him.
It actually works a bit to the episode’s favor that Mitch’s insecurity about always being pushed aside and going unnoticed comes to a head here, since he is so much more mannered than the rest of his family this week. Every other character is either being shrill or obnoxious in subplots that do not make a lot of logical sense outside of a sitcom world. I blame this hyperactivity less on the actors than on the hurried pace of the stories, which forces the cast to resort to high-pitched voices to keep up with the frantic speed of each scene. (The episode is directed by Ryan Case, who was also responsible for “The Feud,” another frenzied half-hour from earlier this year.)
The first zany story comes when Phil goes to extra distances to hide from his wife the reason he missed seeing a technician. He wanted to buy a record of Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” since that was the song playing when he lost his virginity to a girl named Carla, who he often fantasizes about. However, upon buying the Bond song on vinyl, he missed the repairperson and lies about it to Claire, knowing that if she found out the truth of why he was out of the house, things would turn sour.
Although Ty Burrell has the drollness and the sharp tics to make this storyline work, a few things let it down. It descends into a really strange and unfunny running joke where the stress and guilt that arises from the situation turns him into someone with narcolepsy. He keeps dozing off at inopportune times, and it feels absurd and contrived, forcing conflict into the story when it should not be there. Meanwhile, having Alex work on a report about narcolepsy just makes the running joke even more forced and false.
In a storyline that has even more shrieking and silliness, Claire is upset at Cam for never dressing Lily in any of the hand-me-downs she brought him in years past. This story has low stakes, although it does highlight how Mitchell is a background figure for both of these characters. Claire puts none of the blame on her brother for not dressing Lily, while his fiancé doesn’t include him in preparing the staged photograph of Lily in Alex’s pyjamas.