Marriage equality makes a cameo in ‘Modern Family’ season premier: Recap of ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ and ‘First Days’

I had trouble keeping up with the last season of Modern Family. The episodes I did watch weren’t always great, and even though the show was still consistently entertaining, I felt its best days were behind it. Despite its dip in quality, the show triumphed at the Emmys this year and won (undeservedly) for Best Comedy, but none of the talented performers nominated: Ed O’Neil, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, or Sofia Vergara won a trophy, despite some excellent work – especially from Bowen and Vergara.

With all this in mind, I got to catch up with the first two episodes of the fifth season. It’s interesting because there are a few questions looming about the characters, especially Mitch (Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), and if they would be married, now that gay marriage is legal in California. Also a big question mark hung heavily over Claire (Bowen) and whether she would ever return to work. It makes sense that she was a stay-at-home mom when her kids were small, but by the fifth season, daughter Haley is college-aged, and both Alex and Luke are high schoolers. It’s a bit strange that a competent and assertive woman like Claire would find fulfillment tending to a home that doesn’t really need a full-time SAH parent anymore.

Well, these questions got answered in the first two episodes. In the premier, “Suddenly, Last Summer” the writers get to cheat a bit and pretend that we’re in May – in most sitcoms, before the season ends, audiences are treated to the characters’ plans for the summer – but on Modern Family, we’re introduced to the season with the summer plans of the Pritchett clan.

And when penning the first season episode, the writer – Jeffrey Richman – couldn’t ignore the legalization of gay marriage. Everyone is understandably thrilled – with the exception of patriarch Jay (O’Neill), and this is an issue. I understand that Jay’s a natural grump and nothing gets him excited, and I also understand that he gets vague heegeebeegees when it comes to all things gay, but his irritability comes off as homophobic – and this is where Richman should’ve either committed to making Jay unhappy with his son’s impending marriage, which would’ve made for some great television (but it would also clash with the show’s light-as-air tone), or tone down his dismissive attitude. But because the show is so rigidly committed to the lightening-quick scenes, there isn’t much room for darker elements or themes, so Jay’s harrumphing over the gay marriage victory is left open and very ambiguous.

But even if Jay’s not on board with gay marriage (and apparently his baby agrees with him – a cute running joke had baby Joe spit up at any mention of gay marriage), the other characters are all on board. In fact Gloria and Claire get in the ears of Cam and Mitch, respectively, and push each one to propose, ignorant of the other’s plans. So Cam is crafting one proposal, while Mitch is plotting another – this is a cute premise, but veers dangerously close to cutesy The Parent Trap territory, and the characters start to resemble cartoon kids instead of adults who hold down jobs and raise children.

Because this is Modern Family, there are plot twists and uh-ohs that seem to mine the classic tropes of the Comedy of Errors – there are shades of Shakespeare, but there are also shades of Three’s Company. All of this is performed with consummate professionalism, but again, it’s starting to feel a bit too wacky and if the show wants to grow it’ll have to start toning down the Scooby Doo antics.

Aside from gay marriage, there is a pair of subplots – one involving Claire and Phil trying to get rid of their kids for the summer, and the other of Gloria dealing with shipping her kid off to Colombia for the summer.

The Claire-Phil plot is stronger only because it deals with an emotion that seems forbidden for parents to share: ennui and exhaustion from parenting. We always want parents to be happy to be parents, but sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that mom and dad aren’t necessarily euphoric 24/7 about having kids. Phil and Claire try to manipulate their kids’ summer schedules so that they can carve out some couple time – eventually we find out that both also pine for some alone time from each other.

The Gloria subplot is weaker only because it doesn’t get developed and it mines an already threadbare issue: her smothering of Manny.  As usual, Gloria has problems in letting her son go – she wants to have him near, and is disconsolate at the thought of her little boy flying to another country on his own. She’s at turns, teary, wistful, loud, and hovering. As with Jay’s homophobia, it’ll be interesting to see if the writers will let this story take on more complex dimensions – what will Gloria do when Manny starts to date? Or rebel as teens are wont to do?

The episode amiably speeds along, giving each cast member a moment to shine – the kids are especially funny – Aubrey Anderson-Emmons is still a machine with the one-liners and as spacey Dunphy middle child, Luke, Nolan Gould shines. Even if the show is markedly less funny – I only really laughed a couple times (see below for my notes), it was still a decent outing for the show.

Some great moments:

  • Phil in homemade cutoff shorts
  • When Cam has to pretend he’s not going to propose to Mitch, he acts curt and annoyed on the phone. Stonestreet is very funny when he barks out a heavy, “What?” and a peeved, “Ugh, isn’t this convenient?” when Mitch asks him for help.
  • Claire’s hilariously bad ideas for popping the question that she shares with her brother include pretending he’s dying or that he’s leaving Cam.
  • Sofia Vergara gets a cute Abbott and Costello-style bit at the airport when she’s saying goodbye to Manny and warning him of cousin Malaria and cousin Rubella, and diphtheria, which is a disease and not a Colombian relative. It’s corny, but Vergara sells it.
  • Lily’s exchange with Jay after seeing Manny off. Lily: “What if he never comes back?” Jay: “Oh, honey no one ever leaves home and never comes back.” Lily: “I did.”
  • When Mitch and Cam finally get to propose to each other, it’s done tastefully and with restraint, as the two men are down on bended knee changing a tire – a rare quiet moment for the show.
  • In the end, Gloria’s okay with Manny’s absence, and it’s Jay who falls apart after seeing a particularly touching note from his stepson.

The second episode, “First Days” picks up where we left off – the end of summer and there are a lot of first days for our characters: it’s the first day of high school for Manny and Luke, the first day of first grade for Lily, the first day of substitute teaching for Cam, and the first day of work for Claire.

Yes – finally, Claire gets to go back to work – but wait for it, her return to the workforce takes place at her dad’s closet company. It’s about time that Claire does take her place among other working moms, but having her work with Jay is a bit depressing, as it implies that she couldn’t get anything else. I think Claire’s an intelligent, competent, and confident woman, so it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that she has to run to daddy for a job.

Also strange is her behavior at work. Claire’s a lot of things, but emotionally needy is not one of them, yet she’s doing her best to be the popular kid, being awkward and failing at endearing herself to her subordinates and coworkers. And while her desire to be loved is something new, her bizarre compulsive neuroses aren’t, and she dives into being everybody’s pal with astounding ineptitude, much to the embarrassed and irritated consternation of her father. What’s also interesting is that despite Jay’s experience, Claire feels she knows better and blows off her dad’s advice – something that will bite her in the ass later. I get it. Sometimes we think we know something, but we really don’t. But my question is, does this morality tale need to be applied to Claire, who has rarely shown signs of flakiness? There’s something slightly sad about a middle-aged mother of three being scolded by her rich father.

But as bad as Claire’s situation is with her dad, it’s even worse with his IT guy, Todd – a creepy loner who Jay is planning to fire. Because he’s a social pariah, no one in the office likes Todd, so naturally he bonds with Claire. And even though her knowledge of Todd’s impending firing was confidential, she couldn’t help but share his misfortune when he shared that he and his wife (who was getting an MA in Latin – get it? Because getting postgraduate degrees in liberal arts is soooo lame) are getting a house. Once he learns of his fate, Todd leaves in a blaze of glory, upending and crippling all of Jay’s work computers. So, Claire, humbled, must sit at the computer into the night redoing all of the data entry – and the rebellious daughter is put into place. Again, this story line itself isn’t bad, but definitely feels like a strain when it comes to Claire.

But Claire’s not the only one with work issues. Cam’s job as a music teacher has been terminated, and he’s relegated to substitute teaching. He’s called upon to teach Alex’s AP history class – the only problem is he doesn’t know history. Inspired by the theater class, he dons a George Washington outfit and tries to teach about the Revolutionary War as if he were working in some historical theme park. Like Claire, his enthusiasm for the work as well as his inappropriateness for the role is brought up by a family member: Alex, usually sympathetic, but this time just obnoxious in her brilliance, calls Cam out. In a fit of nobility and martyrdom, he makes his way to the football field to quit, but displays a natural talent for football coaching, and is immediately hired by the principal as the school’s PE teacher – ta da, through the magic of sitcoms, when one door marked unemployment closes, another door marked employed opens.

Both Luke and Manny start high school – and though their tales could’ve provided some awesome viewing, we get to watch their parents’ trepidation instead. Both Gloria and Phil are stung by their kids’ refusal to kiss or hug them in front of the school. To lick their wounds, they wander into a coffee house that is being used for a commercial. As one does, both Gloria and Phil are immediately cast for background work, and then both work their magic to make everything ridiculous: Phil gets all Method and DeNiro-like, creating a complicated and sorted back story for himself, while Gloria seems to have taken acting tips for Marcel Marceau. Even though this subplot is the lightest, it was also the most enjoyable, and I love the Gloria/Phil pairings – as they bounce of each other beautifully – both tend to be paired with straight men in their other scenes, so it’s particularly fun to see them match each other in absurdity. And it’s a treat to see how exasperated the commercial’s director is as he tries to reign in Gloria’s outlandish antics or Phil’s crumbling composure.

The least interesting plot of this episode is Mitch’s interactions with his grody boss who is flirting with a comely Haley. The guy’s going through some midlife crisis and is wreaking havoc on Mitch’s personal life – he then sees Haley, who joins in on the flirting, and it’s all very inconsequential. The only plus for the Mitch-at-work scene is that we get more Lily, who easily swipes the scenes from her onscreen parents.

The second episode worked better than the first because it wasn’t as sentimental, and the show always approaches schmaltz – and instead of swerving to avoid it, Modern Family crashes right into it. The monologues at the end that are meant to sum up what happened this week are pretty trite and though they’re a staple of the program, they need to be phased out. So, as with the majority of the fourth season, the fifth season has started out on a decent, solid, if unremarkable note.

Some great moments:

  • Phil and Gloria acting in their commercial. Gloria especially is priceless in this scene, wrenching the attention away from the actors with her grand gestures of pretending to be a customer at a coffee-house. I don’t know what’s funnier her mime act of drinking and eating, or when she takes a call on her imaginary cell phone. Or how ’bout her American accent when she doesn’t understand that extras are supposed to be silent?
  • Lily, pretending to be Mitch’s secretary, answers the office phone with, “Daddy’s office.” Before retorting tersely, “You sound like a little girl.”
  • Phil thinking that he and Gloria should go “bigger” with their performances after the umpteenth time the director yells cut.
  • Phil using Luke’s rejection to inform his character
  • Gloria: “I don’t know what to pretend saying”
  • Claire’s icky lunch date with Todd that peaks with him demonstrating on her hand how to expose the genitalia of a turtle

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Filed under Comedy, Sitcom, Television

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