It seems like forever ago that we last checked in on the Dunphys and Pritchetts, so it is with great excitement that we welcome back Modern Family. If anyone followed my recaps last season, I have changed up my modus operandi for this season. Instead of going through each episode play-by-play, I’m more interested in the themes of each episode and discussing what, in my humble opinion, worked and didn’t work each week. Further, I want to explore how each episode fits in with the rest of the series, instead of just rewriting the script into blog form. Don’t worry though, there will still be plenty of the funniest moments and funniest lines each week, but I think we’ll get to have a great conversation about why Modern Family has been hailed the savior of the family sitcom.
OK, with that out of the way, I enjoyed the second season premiere, “The Old Wagon,” but I wasn’t blown away. Before anyone jumps all over me, even a so-so episode of Modern Family is infinitely better than most other comedies on TV (personally, I’m waiting for Community to return on Thursday night), but the episode seemed to come too easy, like no one was sweating in its creation. It’s interesting: the episode was all about taking time to reflect on the great points of life, even though that life seems to be moving by so quickly. Whether it be the Dunphy family station wagon, Manny’s acceleration into puberty or Mitchell’s desire to be a manly father for his child, these moments are points of meaning for those involved. The nostalgia arises from these moments in that these times have earned their importance. Modern Family earned its popularity and acclaim because it was doing different things than a traditional family sitcom, and doing it remarkably well. The problem with this episode (and really, a number of the later Season One episodes) is that it feels like the show is on a bit of auto-pilot. Yes, everything is still really funny, but the show is not striving to be more than a pleasant family sitcom. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me too much because, hell, we need more pleasant sitcoms that are funny on a weekly basis. My issue is that Modern Family, at its best, does strive to be more, and it has been transcendent in so doing.
No one, including me, is really going to fault the show for not changing the formula that earned them critical and popular raves and an Emmy in its first season. I just expected for its return, the show would knock my socks off, that I would be loudly guffawing, as I have in many other episodes. Instead, I was perfectly amused by Manny’s run-in with a demanding, 21st Century woman, Mitchell’s continued fear of birds (see last season’s finale for the first instance of Mitchell’s ornithophobia), Gloria’s pronunciation of “Shee Labuff,” and Phil’s mnemonic devices. In fact, the individual stories were pretty funny on their own, it was at the end, however, when the treacly music and Phil’s voiceover started, that I really felt the letdown of the expectations (based on past performance) I set for the show. Phil’s voiceover says that “part of life is letting things go.” Despite its success, a show shouldn’t be letting go of its drive in its second season, and I am concerned that is what might be happening here.
Now, as I said above, my criticism doesn’t mean that Modern Family doesn’t excel at most of what it does. The jokes were still pretty sharp, and the slapstick was very well executed by those called on to perform it (namely, Phil’s “iron cross” with the bicycle, Cameron’s reaction to the nails coming through the wall, and Phil’s jumping on the runaway car, which I know bothered Miles, but I found pretty funny). Everything just felt a bit too easy. To use an analogy that has a bit of reference to the show itself, it was like a figure skater performing a double axel instead of the triple axel normally in her program. The double is performed perfectly, but it’s still not as challenging, and doesn’t score as high, as the triple. For me, Modern Family “doubled it” tonight by playing it safe and making sure its returning audience felt safely at home with the show. Hopefully, this is just a warm-up act, and the amazing Modern Family will return and supplant the very good Modern Family we received tonight.
One thing I do want to do each week is pull out a few of the great lines from the episode because if there is anything that Modern Family does well, it’s some really funny dialogue. Here are some of the best from “The Old Wagon”:
Cameron: If I have to build anything with him [Mitchell] again, I hope he kills me because I don’t think I’ll be a very inspiring handicapped person.
Phil: We should give it [the car] to Haley.
Claire: We are not giving it to Haley. It’s way too easy to fit a mattress in the back.
Phil, speaking of the Rose Bowl Parade he and Claire attended in their station wagon: Angela Lansbury was the Grand Marshal. Good times, she wrote.
Mitchell: Dad, don’t you remember when we built that bookshelf together?
Jay (to camera): That was my Vietnam…and I was in Vietnam.
Mitchell, having finished the princess castle by himself:
So, what did you think about “The Old Wagon”? Am I totally off base here, were you uproariously laughing for the whole half-hour? Do you even care if the show strives to push the envelope on what a sitcom “does”? Any other great lines that made you laugh out loud? Please drop your comments below or in our ABC Forum. I’ll be back next week with another review. Until then, I’m off to play Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon.