That tide may be changing for the comedy, which used two 22-minute blocks yesterday evening to set up many new changes for its characters. Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are now getting married, since the season premiere begins with the Supreme Court ruling to legalize gay marriage in California. Claire (Julie Bowen) steps into the workplace at her father’s (Ed O’Neill) office – a location that has not been used on the show before. Luke (Nolan Gould) and Manny (Rico Rodriguez) are starting high school, while Cam is also adapting to a new teaching position there: coach of the fledgling football team. It’s also Lily’s first day of Grade 1 (although Aubrey Anderson-Emmons is still a Kindergarten-level line-reader), but that is short lived when she runs into a brick wall.
(Another noticeable change: the family portrait segments that compose the curt title sequence are new, considering both Luke and Lily seem to have grown half a foot since the show went on hiatus).
Meanwhile, the chemistry between Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell (as Phil) is still unmatched on TV comedy today: her deadpan reaction to him standing up while wearing short shorts is a highlight from “Suddenly, Last Summer.” The two of them spend the start of that episode working the whiteboard calendar in their home to figure out when they can get some kid-free time during the summer vacation.
Ty Burrell is still the show’s biggest asset, and Phil Dunphy its funniest character. In the season opener, he dishes expert pitches to Alex and Hailey to get them out of the house for a week, while approving of Luke’s crush for her adoration of Dirty Dancing (“never let her go,” he quips to his pubescent son). Burrell also supplies one of “First Days”’s biggest laughs: a terrible, although priceless impression of a “Christopher Walk-en closet,” a joke that Claire repeats during her first day at work to less fanfare.
The central aim of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” though, is to see whether the flamboyant Cam will propose to Mitch or that the less romantic, more micro-managing Mitch will get on one knee for Cam. Claire tries to help Mitch set the tone right and make a splashy proposal, while Gloria (Sofia Vergara) wants to help Cam set up a beautiful moment too. Of course, the two plans cannot reconcile, although the conclusion is thrillingly perfect. An episode highlight is a clever single-camera confession, which intercuts between Mitch and Cam’s proposal plans. They really do know how to complete each other’s sentences.
Even in the familiar moments, like those cheeky single-camera confessions and the oft-employed misunderstanding through double entendres, are still funny despite the formula. The latter even gives “Suddenly, Last Summer” its best gag. Jay and Manny stand in line to get a birth certificate replacement on the same day that gay marriage is legalized, and then this dialogue happens:
Manny: “I’m not sure I want to go through with it.”
Jay: “We didn’t drive all the way down here for that piece of paper for you to get cold feet at the last second. And what happened anyway? You’ve been looking forward to this day for months!
Manny: “I know, but maybe we should wait until next year. I’m still kind of young to be doing this.”
Jay: “We’re not waiting. I already paid for you and your mother signed off. This is happening.”
Cue the disgusted looks from the crowd of same-sex couples standing in line nearby. (Another choice sight gag related to the gay marriage ruling: infant Fulgencio upchucks any time one of the characters mentions it.)
Modern Family is a show that has gotten by its last couple of seasons through a comfort factor: we have felt at home watching these characters, even if the comedy bits were more stale. If head writer Steven Levitan and company are using the episodes tonight to help many of the constrained characters spread their wings and embrace new beginnings, the show has the potential to create some fantastic plot threads.
There is another show about a large family heading into its fifth season this fall: Parenthood. While that series has gradually gotten better each year as its main characters face bracing changes and challenges (getting fired, not getting into university, a cancer diagnosis). Modern Family has been content to stick with the status quo, and it’s certainly time to shake things up.
“First Days” closes with an inspirational voice-over mantra from Cam as he says – triumphantly, and donned in a George Washington costume – that “today, we are forging a new path.” If a show that has stuck to a formula is starting to change it up, then the two opening episodes may prove to be the foundation for an excellent and unpredictable season of television. Watch out, Frasier Crane.