Bryan Cranston directs the pre-Christmas episode of Modern Family, and Heisenberg brings us a batch of storylines that are both naughty and nice. However, even without the Emmy-winning actor working behind the camera, “The Old Man & The Tree” would still have been a memorable holiday-seasoned half-hour.
Episode scribes Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh have been writing partners since the series began and have given audiences some of Modern Family’s pinnacle episodes: “Fizbo,” “Earthquake,” “Bringing Up Baby.” With the comedy’s experts at the helm, they know how to tweak some of the issues viewers (and this critic) have had with Modern Family as of late; namely, the rushed pace of the episodes and the lack of quality storylines for all of the characters.
Corrigan and Walsh do something terrific and unexpected: they give every character something interesting to do. Moreover, they deal with the hurried feel of this latest season by bringing all of these stories together and pushing the urgency of the date – the day before Christmas – as a way to get characters (and the jokes) moving at a more natural quickness.
On December 24 in the Pritchett-Tucker household (or is it Lily’s house, since she owns the best one-liners), Cam and Mitchell realize that they do not have a gift from Lily, after misreading her wish list. They rush off in different directions to find a “Puppy Pound” toy. In a classic misunderstanding, Cam decides to pick up the toy with Lily at a charity event for the needy – except the event is for the needy, not the charity.
Meanwhile, Jay is unimpressed with his son’s environmentally conscious Christmas tree, and takes Manny to a forest with an axe to cut down a real evergreen. Collecting a Christmas tree is a holiday trope that so many programs have used already that it is something of a (Christmas) miracle that it works so well here. The candor between Jay and Manny is light, quippy and clever.
Ed O’Neill continues to prove that he is the anchor of the show by adding warmth to what could have been a cranky demeanor for the whole episode. “Trees are like women,” Jay tells Manny. “The best ones make you look a little bit harder.”