Modern Family review – 4×02 / 4×03: ‘Schooled’ / ‘Snip’

Courtesy of ABC

On this fine post-Canadian Thanksgiving Wednesday, Modern Family delivers two episodes in a one-two punch. Well, one punch and one pitty-patty slap (I just learned that term).

Let’s start with the punch, aka Episode 2….

School is in! Haley (Sarah Hyland) is leaving for her first year of college while Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) is starting kindergarten. These milestones prove challenging moments for their respective parents.

When they drop Lily off at kindergarten, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) is, predictably, emotional while Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is more reserved. What is equally predictable is how Eric Stonestreet – as always – steals these scenes. The outlet for the scene-stealing (and superb dialogue) is a scene in which Cam and Mitch intervene when a little boy pulls Lily’s hair. Cam gets pulled into the principal’s office after he threatens to run the little boy up a flag pole so that birds can peck out his eyes, which we can all agree is a perfectly normal reaction (right? No?). Maybe I have a dark sense of humour, but I could not stifle my laughter when Cam repeats the verbal threat in pantomime, including the boy flying in the wind and the jabbing birds. Someone get this man another Emmy!

Cam meets his match at the meeting with the principal when the boy’s mothers arrive and he expertly thrusts and parries with one (Wendi McLendon-Covey of Bridesmaids fame) who matches him stereotype for stereotype. Although the families get off to a rocky start, ultimately they discover that they have more in common than Cam and Mitch’s gay/lesbian diagram would suggest.

Meanwhile, Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen) help Haley move into her dorm, which proves to be not only difficult emotionally but also socially. Safe to say that your father mistakenly grabbing the backside of your new roommate, followed by the condoms that your well-intentioned mother so thoughtfully packed in your tote bag spilling out all over the floor ranks as one of the most disastrous moving days ever. Underneath the gags, the soul of the story is Phil’s gift to Haley (a book of “Phils-osophy”), which leads to a surprisingly emotional ending. Well, maybe it is emotional just for people like me whose tear ducts remain primed and ready to launch even during comedies.

Courtesy of ABC

Finally, Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sophia Vergara) make the weirdest attempt ever at attending parenting class. Normally I love these characters, but I do not know what the writers were thinking when they wrote these scenes. Jay and Gloria’s behaviour in class is really inappropriate and it ultimately prompts them to leave (thankfully – I am not sure how many more racist jokes their classmates could have tolerated). I don’t know what else to say about these scenes, except maybe that it felt like they wrote Jay as Arnold Horshack and Gloria as a pregnant Vinnie Barbarino and the whole thing just crashed before my eyes yet I could not turn away.

Despite some of the crash-and-burns, this episode is still packed with charm and the show’s trademark attention to the emotions behind the jokes. I am looking forward to how they deal with Haley’s absence and what kind of effect it will have on the story arc this season.

Episode 4×03: ‘Snip’

The third episode of the season immediately follows and I am sorry to say that it falls flat. A few smaller stories are pursued in this episode, which is fine, but I feel that it lacks the thematic loop-closing that I’ve come to love about this show’s writing. Is it just me?

One of the principle storylines is Phil and Claire’s five-year plan: in five years they’ll have a fresh start when Luke goes to college “or somewhere,” as Claire says. Their insurance to guaranteeing the plan comes to fruition is Phil’s scheduled vasectomy. The prospect of going under the knife produces the requisite humour-generating anxiety, particularly when Claire arranges for Jay to accompany her husband to the appointment. This sets the stage for another Jay-Phil bonding moment and a great observation by Jay that vasectomy doctors’ offices really, really need private recovery rooms to keep survivors away from prospective patients. Just before the procedure is scheduled to occur, we get a series of scenes illustrating bad kid/good kid behaviour and the episode ends on an uncertain note about whether Claire and Phil are ready to close the procreation door just yet.

In completely unrelated news, Alex (Ariel Winter) has gone goth, possibly to impress a school friend. One person who is not impressed is Haley. Quoth the Alex (via Skype, which is apparently how Haley is going to continue to participate in family life) to the Haley: “Don’t you have a class to fail?” Quoth the Haley to the Alex: “Don’t you have a raven to train?” (Point to Haley for that one).

Courtesy of ABC

Meanwhile, Cam is adjusting to Lily’s absence at home and the time that this has freed up in his daily routine. Mitch’s gentle attempt to broach the subject of Cam’s returning to work does not go over particularly well with Cam. Admittedly, the subject is delicately addressed via an elaborate public set up in Cam’s favourite clothing boutique, which may explain Cam’s reaction. Ultimately Cam accepts a part-time position as a music-teacher, which I’ll admit is actually a loop-closer since the position is at Manny’s (Rico Rodriguez) school and he had been lamenting the departure of his music teacher.

In other apparent non-sequitors, Gloria is having a hard time accepting the fact that she looks pregnant. So she has not started wearing maternity clothes. And she is starting to show. What leads to (Spoiler Alert) Gloria buying maternity clothes… *sound of crickets chirping* Perhaps others find it hilarious to see Vergara trying to squeeze into her hot mama clothes, but this one-joke storyline is bereft of comedy and just kind of putters along.

For his part, Jay is having a hard time not knowing the gender of the baby (Gloria wants to keep it a surprise). He is worried that they will have a girl, since he’s so insensitive and girls are complicated. I thought that Jay’s worry felt a bit forced (almost as though they needed something for him to bond with Phil over), but maybe I misunderstood? It did seem kind of fitting to have Jay talking about his fear of the unknown while Phil contemplates the imminent elimination of that kind of unknown from his own life.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the thematic loop that I overlooked until this very moment is something along the lines of “difficulty adjusting”. It seems to me that the main stories (Cam, Phil and Claire, Jay and Gloria) have a “new reality” link to them. It’s a little tenuous, but it’s what I’ve got!

What do you think, readers? Is there as strong a central theme in this episode as I’ve observed in others? Did you enjoy the double-bill of episodes? Are you seeing enough new character development so far in the new season? And what was the funniest joke?

Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9pm EST on ABC

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