Headed into this week’s episode of Modern Family, we had so much to look forward to: the return of Claire and Mitchell’s mom, DeDe, and thus the return of the very funny Shelley Long! A guest appearance by Matt Dillon as Claire’s high-school boyfriend! And, most important, the grand occasion of Lily’s birthday! But maybe because the episode took on so much, the results were a bit of a letdown, with no single plotline getting the time it deserved.
At first, it looked like this week Jay and Gloria’s subplot would center on Gloria’s still-not-exactly-awesome grasp on the English language, which was due to resurface as a gag sometime soon. Gloria goes birthday shopping for Lily brings home a one of those kids’ books with the thing that allows long-distance relatives or absentee parents to record themselves reading the story so the kid can play the track as they turn the pages. Manny would’ve preferred a cashmere throw, and Jay isn’t so sure it’s the best idea, either. He brings up the answering-machine incident and we flash back to his battle with Gloria over whether and when and how to say “beep.” (Between that and her priceless reaction to the mis-sent e-mail a few weeks back, it seems clear that we need a whole episode of Gloria having frustrating experiences with household gadgets.) But the family curls up on the couch together, Jay with drink in hand, to bumble their way through Goldilocks and the Three Bears anyway. It’s awkward, Jay’s eyesight is bad, Manny is overly concerned with his performance, and Gloria over-pronounces every single word; they all snip at each other intermittently, and the scenes start to stall. Then, about halfway through the episode, it comes out that Gloria is nervous about going to Lily’s birthday party because Jay’s ex-wife (y’know, Mitchell and Claire’s mom, DeDe) is going to be there. Jay feebly uses his wife’s concern as leverage to back out of her friends’ daughter’s upcoming Christening (this was a great moment of intermarital manipulation), but then at the last minute Gloria grows a pair: “We cannot let other people make us miss important family events,” she decides. “What, I’m going to miss Alex’s graduation, and all of Haley’s weddings, just because of DeDe?”
It’s been nearly a season and a half since we first (and last) saw DeDe Pritchett: Back in the fourth episode, she returned to make amends after making a fool of herself at Jay and Gloria’s wedding. We remember her as a slightly-loony, New Agey grandma, her tight-woundedness somewhat justified by her ex-husband’s recent marrying of a younger lady. We also remember finding her kind of charming, even when she tried to choke Gloria. Upon her return, she’s still underminey, causing Clair to chug white wine. Before, though, she was emotionally raw, shaken, and seemingly unsure of all the choices she’d ever made in her life. In this episode, she just seems wantonly bitchy. We liked the family’s various strategies for navigating this minefield: Alex resigning herself to cello practice (nice interplay of the Jaws theme with grandma’s grand entrance) and Luke’s campaign of cuteness. But DeDe trumps all, having brought home Claire’s high-school boyfriend Robbie (played by Matt Dillon, who really seemed to be holding back), now a scuzzy professional limo driver. (“Whoa, you came here in a limo? Are you rich?” “Luke, that’s not polite. Maybe Robbie isn’t rich, but he needs a limo because he has a lot of DUIs.”) It seems, briefly, as if DeDe has brought him there to force onto Claire, but no! We thought DeDe was happily retired to Canada with some equally daffy new husband, but it seems she and Robbie are now acting on a bizarre, long-dormant mutual infatuation. All the Chardonnay in the world can’t pacify Claire, and she eventually erupts at Lily’s birthday party. DeDe is saved from her daughter’s fury by Jay, who pulls her aside and to whom she begins a confession that, at first, seems like it might retroactively lend her some much-needed pathos: “I divorced you because I was looking for something else, and I haven’t found it. But when I come back here, I feel like I have to prove something.” But then Gloria, still strung out on her chemical coping mechanism of choice, stumbles into the frame and DeDe seizes her chance and an unnecessary catfight ensues.
As if the bevy of recycled plot devices wasn’t enough, we felt a little short-changed in the Lily department, too. And that is not a department in which we ever should be messed with — you just can’t have a kid that cute, promise great story lines (her princess birthday party! Thrown by her gay dads!), and not follow through. What we did get with the guys was kind of great: Cameron is dead set on busting out his old Fizbo the Clown routine for the soiree, so much so that when Mitch reminds him that the party is princess-themed, he adapts the character intro a truly terrifying, Dickensian fever dream of a court jester. Cam’s showdown with the hired princess impersonator was great, too, with him prodding her into breaking character and then berating her in front of all the kids. And of course we loved it when Mitch finally relented and told him to bring out Fizbo. It was all sweet and heartwarming and uncovered yet another layer of their relationship. But you know who we still don’t know much about? Lily! Who got about 45 seconds of screen time in the episode about her birthday party. We know she’s still really, really little, and it might be unreasonable to expect much out of tiny, tiny actors, but the time feels right for her to start being developed into something more than a prop. But maybe we’re just bummed because we liked the first-season episode about Luke’s birthday party so much — we wanted a little more of that, even if it might be overkill to have episodes about big kids’ parties in back-to-back seasons. Then again, the show-runners have shown no such compunction about involving their female characters in petty catfights, so maybe there’s hope for us yet.