Everyone has something to do this week, and Cranston mines great performances from an already ace cast. Phil made a deal with Claire to run the distance of their house to Canada on an elliptical machine by Christmas and he is in the final stretch. Haley and Alex are at the mall working with the local Santa Claus, but Kris Kringle abandons them and leaves ravenous kids aching to sit in his lap. Luke hopes to get rid of weeks worth of recycling that has stacked up in the corner of the garage without anyone noticing.
The only storyline that feels a bit worn is a visit from Gloria’s mother, Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), who likes to get her grief out on her daughter. When Claire visits, Gloria’s mom is impressed by how Claire can raise a family and work full-time, which sours Gloria even more. This story leads to couch-time confession of sorts when Claire, Gloria and Pilar talk about their fragmented relationships with their mothers and daughters. It is not a bad storyline, and does reveal more about Gloria and Claire, but it lacks the zing and urgency of the other stories in what is a briskly paced half-hour. (Also strange: Pena looks only a few years older than Vergara, who plays her daughter.)
“The Old Man & The Tree” is a strong episode of Modern Family, in that it gives several character dynamics time to develop. With this being a Christmas episode, they find layers of good in each other. These duos are: Jay and Manny, Claire and Gloria, Haley and Alex, and best of all, Phil and Luke. The Phil and Luke father-son bond remains tried and true as the most endearing and lovely relationship between a man and his boy on television.
The lack of Luke, the least embarrassing member of this extended family, has been a major issue for Modern Family this season. Even as the character (and actor) blossom through puberty, it is still refreshing to see so many layers of love between Luke and his father. This week, he bolsters Phil up so that his dad can complete the marathon, and this motivation is as touching as Phil’s Canadian accents are awkwardly off.
Bryan Cranston’s second foray into directing a Modern Family episode is pure quality. Appropriate for a holiday episode, it has a lot of nice and a little bit of naughty, too (in one hilarious and uncomfortable moment, an older man insists to sit on Haley when she is in Santa’s chair). Filled with needed bonding time between characters and a brisk pace to fit the manic Christmas Eve timeline, “The Old Man & The Tree” is a stellar episode of the Emmy-winning comedy.
If only Cranston, Corrigan and Walsh could put together a half-hour parody of Breaking Bad with the Modern Family cast. Imagine: Phil is Walter White, Luke is Jesse Pinkman and Claire is Skylar White. Now that would be a holiday treat worth savouring.