Two words that often describe later seasons of Modern Family are ‘delightful’ and ‘rushed’. The former is due to the stellar efforts of what is certainly the best comic ensemble on network television, the latter due to trying to compress all of their easy charm and comic virtues into 21 minutes without abandoning any of the characters. Modern Family would be a better show if it let a few of the family members off the hook each week, allowing the stories and jokes to breathe by not jumping around between subplots as much. Thankfully, this week’s episode, “Spring-a-Ding-Fling,” is a rather charming and frequently funny return to form after the last two derivative half hours – even if nearly every story could have benefitted from a longer running time.
On “Spring-a-Ding-Fling,” the characters do not defy the personalities that have already been ingrained for five seasons. Instead, they embrace the core that makes us love them. Mitchell is a dignified worrywart as always, but he gets the chance to try this out in a new work environment. Likewise, Cam tries to be a crowd-pleasing creative type but has to compete with the arrival of an equally crowd-pleasing type. Phil’s zany theatricality, Claire’s micromanagement, Jay’s business know-how, Luke’s boyish youth, Alex’s dorkiness and Gloria’s, well, cleavage, are all employed in ways that stay true to their old ways but in subplots that are more refreshing than usual.
The best plot of the week, which also had one of the most unpredictable uses of misdirection that I can recall from the sitcom, belonged to Mitch. He begins a job for a legal aid society, which an old friend from law school runs. Upon arriving at the office, he realizes that the employees are very hostile toward Wendy (a sharp Aisha Tyler, who I hope we see more from). He notices the dismay and deteriorating spirits of the office staff and is caught between loyalty to his boss and to his new co-workers (and figuring out his potential future with the firm).
Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mitch’s reactions to the initial conniving harshness that Wendy shows, and the embarrassment after finding out he has misinterpreted all of the workers’ problems as having nothing to do with Wendy, to a tee. While Ferguson is rarely the star of any Modern Family episode, the writers saved him a terrific, delightfully awkward story that gets the best of his deadpan facial expressions. A good running gag of him mistaking the photos of famous African-Americans on Wendy’s wall for her family members (and vice versa) brought out his nervous demeanor and white guilt in a clever, hilarious way. However, it was likely a bit much for Mitch to call Wendy (an African-American), a “cold, emotionless thug.”
Meanwhile, hubby Cameron is on the cusp of becoming a school hero for planning a successful spring dance (that gives the episode its animated title). However, it happens on the same day as the return of Spanish teacher Kaplan (Will Sasso), who is back from his Sabbatical. With a high voice, ostentatious personality and sturdy figure, he is almost a mirror image of Cam – and this draws a competition between this year’s dance planner and the one from years past. “He left as everybody’s favourite,” Cam tells the viewer, regrettably, knowing that being the most popular is just what he savours. As overbearing as Eric Stonestreet can be when he turns the volume up on his character, to our relief, he keeps his theatricality to a minimum.