When you watch as many sitcoms as I’m sure most readers of this website do, it’s fun trying to guess where an episode’s plot is going to go after the first commercial break—fun and, oftentimes, frustrating. Watch a single season of The Office or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and you’ve essentially seen every trope a sitcom can throw at you.
I like playing this guessing game with Modern Family because I’m often wrong. The show has a remarkable ability, even in this weak sophomore season, to start off on a predictable path, only to end up somewhere both funny and charming. For instance, at the beginning of last night’s episode, “Boys’ Night,” there was an unfunny intro about Manny’s resistance to trying new things, such as scrambled eggs, and Jay’s crab cake-inspired advice about life being too short, etc. It seemed like the start of an uninspired plot about embracing life then having it backfire on you — and that’s exactly what happened, but not in the way I expected.
Soon after the eggs conversation, Manny and Gloria are at a Four Seasons concert and Jay’s singing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with Cameron, Mitchell, Pepper (Nathan Lane was fantastic), Longinus (the voice of Mack on Daria for four episodes!), and Crispin. Scenes set around the dinner table in a home or restaurant are some of my favorites because it condenses all the action into one tiny setting, and Modern went wild with this, having Mitch talk about his grade-school crush on Rob Lowe (who, I agree with Jay, is a fine looking man) and sexual innuendos flying all over the place. So much of the show — and really, most sitcoms at this point — are about awkward situations, so it was nice to see a group of likable characters just having fun. That’s the main reason why Cougar Town has become so beloved and popular after a rocky first season. Even Mitchell is impressed by the amount of fun Jay had, not to mention his tolerance for a very flamboyant group of gays, or at least he was until his father calls Pepper, who he’s accidentally about to go on a date with, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
Phil and Claire’s story was less inspired, but saved by Luke, who steals every scene of every episode he’s in (like holding his breath while walking into the house because he’s afraid there’s no oxygen). Luke goes to retrieve a ball from the neighbor’s house, a house inhabited by a supposedly creepy old man (Phillip Baker Hall, a.k.a. Seinfeld’s Bookman, which is what we’re calling him from here on out). In the tradition of The Sandlot, Gran Torino, Up, and True Grit (the last three of which were mentioned in the episode), the child (Luke) doesn’t judge someone who’s allegedly weird and bitter (Bookman), unlike his parents (Phil and Claire), and the two become friends.
There really wasn’t anything new done here, other than the writers showing some restraint; they didn’t try to give Bookman a reason for being a hermit, like a dead wife or estranged son. He was framed as an old man who likes his privacy, and they didn’t make fun of him for it — in fact, the blame is squarely on Phil and Claire for not taking the time to know their neighbor (although I do agree that they shouldn’t just let their young son hang out with strangers — and he even got a very poignant, yet simple line: “I used to be a fireman. I don’t hurt kids.” IMDB says Bookman will be back for episode 20, so we’ll see him again (and I really hope they don’t kill the poor guy…).
Alex and Haley, meanwhile, are worrying about animals dying and babysitting Lily with Dylan. I honestly can’t think of anything to say about either story, other than the actress who plays Haley, Sarah Hyland, keeps getting better, and Alex perfectly fits the Middle Child Syndrome trope. Luke and Haley get all the attention and good plots, and Alex is just kind of…there. I mean, really, getting scared about large flocks of animals dying? To paraphrase a common expression: if you don’t have any good plots to give, don’t give them at all.
No one could have guessed that after the first few minutes of “Boys Night Out,” we’d soon see Jay singing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or Phil literally pushing Claire towards Bookman to make sure he’s alive or Cameron knowing that someone unnamed sports team is up by 25 with only a minute left — and that’s what Modern Family does so well: finding new ways of telling stories that have been sitcom staples for half a century now. As for Mitchell’s love of “Lucky Star,” well, obviously.
Josh Kurp thought, for a second, Nathan Lane was going to sing “Hakuna Matata.”