Did you miss last week’s very funny episode of Modern Family? Catch up with my review here.
Modern Family is, of course, an ensemble show, and most of its episodes to date go to sometimes painstaking lengths to make sure each of the three family units is treated equally in terms of screen time, emphasis and laughs. Every now and again, however, an episode really lets one of the cast members shine, such as Phil in “Game Changer” or Cameron in “Fizbo.” This week’s episode, “Halloween,” was really a showcase for Julie Bowen’s Claire, who, in my opinion, had her funniest performance to date.
The episode, unsurprisingly, revolved around Halloween, but was ostensibly about feeling different and being an outsider even within one’s own family or workplace. Mitchell was caught in a costume at work when he thought that was his new firm’s tradition, only to discover it was only him and the two guys he over heard talking about their costumes, Cameron hasn’t liked Halloween since he was traumatized as a ten year old, Gloria’s thick accent brought her ridicule from Jay, and Phil worried that if he wasn’t more attentive, Claire would want to divorce him like their neighbors. It was Claire’s story, however, that made addressed this issue closest as all she wanted was to have a great (and super-complicated) family Halloween. She knows that Halloween is a “crazy-ass holiday,” but it’s her crazy-ass holiday, especially after fireworks were introduced to Christmas (a Colombian tradition introduced by Gloria in “Undeck the Halls”), and “the gays took over cooking the turkey according to whatever was style trendy on the Food Network” for Thanksgiving. Halloween gives Claire a sense of identity amongst her family, so it is precious to her. She is willing to sacrifice a lot for her family, but this celebration is something she can keep for herself.
Now, in the expression of Claire’s unique love for Halloween, Julie Bowen was all aces. Yes, Phil was bumbling and her children were trying her patience, but everything seemed to service Claire this week, and Bowen nailed it. Everything from her expert delivery of some of the best comedic lines she has had in a long time (see below), to her physical comedy (falling off the ladder, kicking the tombstone, punching Mitchell in the face), to even her Halloween costume (the costume/make-up department deserves major kudos for this episode) were perfectly executed. Claire/Bowen have often been criticized for being the least funny part of a really funny show, but I have never found this criticism warranted. Every Lou Costello needs a Bud Abbott to play the “straight man.” For me, Claire has most often been that straight man, whether it be to Phil, Mitchell, or the kids. Just because Claire has to take that role doesn’t mean Julie Bowen isn’t funny or performing the role well. It is episodes like this one that clearly attest to the opposite.
Of course, there was plenty of other funny stuff going on around Claire, and I was laughing pretty damn hard at these shenanigans. Highlights were the lame “Claire cutting off her hand” joke that led into Phil grabbing Luke’s arm, Haley’s numerous costume changes, Mitchell’s costume squeaking, Gloria’s “American” voice, and the end of Cameron’s story. Everything was clicking, and the momentum seemed to build during the episode to the payoff of Claire flipping out on Halloween night, but the family continuing with her plans anyway.
I mentioned last week that Modern Family doesn’t need to have some major teachable moment each week to make it effective television — sometimes it’s just enough to be funny — and I loved “Unplugged” for that reason. With “Halloween,” we received not only very funny stuff from each story, but we also had the unifying theme and the family coming together at the end of the episode. When this has occurred in the past, the dreaded voiceover and music often made those episodes seem pat. Here, since the music and voiceover were unnecessary because the episode’s other elements said everything that the voiceover would have, the episode fell fully realized and rewarding. There is a common mantra in the performing arts of all stripes that a piece is most effective when the show, play or movie “does” and not “tells” the audience its theme or lesson. With the voiceover tool, an episode is essentially “telling” the audience what it is supposed to feel. When the dialogue, physicality and other elements can direct the audience to those feelings, the episode is much more effective. That is what “Halloween” did, and why it was a top-notch episode.
If I have one criticism, it would be that none of the characters seem to be growing at all. Now, before you all flame me in the Comments section, I understand. This is a comedy; the characters’ job is to be funny. Nothing more, nothing less. I get this attitude, and I’d say in most cases, I’d be content with that. However, Modern Family, is no presented as just some light piece of comedy fare or absurdist theater. Like The Office or The Big Bang Theory or Cheers or The Cosby Show (this is not my first comparison of Modern Family and The Cosby Show today), comedies all, the characters grow into better/different people throughout the series. Yes, there are fits and starts, and sometimes a given episode doesn’t move anyone anywhere in favor of just plain funny, but over the arch of the series, the characters mature to some degree. Perhaps it is because the show is only a quarter of the way through its second season, but I don’t see any of the characters (except maybe Jay), changing in the slightest fashion. I would say it was a positive that Phil was looking this week to make sure he’s not taking advantage of his wife’s affections, but likely, this will disappear next week and going forward. The kids haven’t changed at all, nor have Cameron and Mitchell. Only Jay, who seems to be becoming more understanding of his son’s sexuality and his wife’s traditions, has matured at all. Of course, Modern Family is plenty funny without character development, but the show can and will be that much richer if the writers can work in some development.
On to the quotes of the week:
Haley (in very short shorts, a tight black tank top, a collar, knee-high boots, cat’s ears and a tail): Check it. I’m a scary black cat.
Claire: The only person that costume scares is me. Go change it.
Haley: To what?
Claire: I don’t know, one of your old costumes. Honey, trust me. I’m sparing you an entire day’s worth of guys asking you if you have a rough tongue.
Mitchell realizes he has laundered suits he left in the back of the car to change into.
Cameron: Yesterday’s lazy cures today’s crazy!!
Jay (explaining that Gloria is improperly saying “doggy dog world”): Well, it’s “dog eat dog world.”
Gloria: That doesn’t make any sense. Who wants to live in a world where dogs eat each other? “Doggy Dog World” is a beautiful world of little puppies!
Haley shows Claire hew new costume: a way too small for her nurse’s outfit.
Claire: Are you trying to get candy or Japanese businessmen?
Haley shows Claire her very skimpy Mother Teresa costume.
Claire: I will give you ten dollars to put some clothes on.
Alex: Bet that’s the first time you’ve heard that one.
Cameron says that townspeople chased him when he was a ten year old Quasimodo.
Claire: “Townspeople,” Cameron? Really?
Cameron: I lived on a farm. They lived in town. They were townspeople!
Well, there you have it folks. That’s what I’ve got for “Halloween.” What did you think of the episode? How did you feel the spotlight fit Claire and Julie Bowen? What did you think of everyone’s costumes? Were you glad they addressed the somewhat large elephant in the room that is Gloria’s accent? Like me, do you think Modern Family has found its groove? Please drop your questions and comments below. I’ll be back next week with another review. Until then, I’m off to have thirds of the tandoori turkey.