David Cross is having a banner week. It was announced that he and the rest of the Arrested Development cast will be returning to TV for eight new episodes and a possible movie, and just last night, Cross began a story arc in another documentary-style sitcom about the inner workings of a wacky family, complete with plenty of double entendres and long-running jokes. If Modern Family is more network mainstay than cult classic, here’s hoping a bit of Cross’s edginess will cut through some of the show’s more sentimental tendencies. Time will tell, but Teachable Moments seem less likely to arise in the presence of the man who played TV’s greatest never-nude.
Last night’s Life Lessons weren’t all tied up in neat little bows, but there was some wrapping paper. Manny has to sell the stuff in order to raise money for the drama club’s trip to see Les Miz. Jay sees the fund-raising challenge as an opportunity to teach Manny the ways of salesmanship, proffering Who Moved My Cheese–style business platitudes such as, “A good salesman goes after Moby Dick in a row boat, and brings the tartar sauce with him.” After even cheesy motivational speaker Jay can’t help him score any sales in the neighborhood, a distraught Manny moans that he’ll never have Jay’s business acumen. Angst! When Jay lets Manny off the hook and agrees to buy all of the wrapping paper himself, Manny reveals a business lesson of his own: “You’ll never go broke playing to a rich guy’s ego.” Score one for Manny, master manipulator. You’re gonna go far in the business world, kid.
While Jay and Manny are Glengarry Glen Ross–ing, Gloria too is going door to door. Gloria and Stella have been going at it again (man, can that dog jump!), and when Gloria sends her four-legged rival outside for a time out, she forgets that the gate to the house is open. Stella goes missing, and a frantic Gloria enlists Cam to help find her. Cam — canvassing the neighborhood in a white undershirt and screaming “STELLA! STELLA!” — is an “inadvertent Stanley Kowalski,” and he’s making the most of his Streetcar Named Desire moment, even if his shrieks are more Vivien Leigh than Brando. They eventually find Stella being walked by a snotty little girl (named Blanche!) who refuses to give the dog up. Silly Blanche thinks that if she screams as loud as she can, Cam and Gloria will back away, but we know better. Cam and Gloria’s respective larger-than-life shticks are put to good use when they scream right back, making terrifying noises that Manny sums up as “Coyotes must’ve got a cat.”
Cam hasn’t just created cacophony on the street, he’s also made a mess at home. He’s scrawled a note on an old magazine about a rescheduled adoption agency home appointment, but neither he nor Mitchell can read it (“It disappears into Jennifer Aniston’s hair”). Even worse, he’s left the kitchen a disaster after having made crepes for breakfast. Mitchell knows that Cam can’t stand a mess any more than he can, it’s just that Cam always expects Mitchell to be the one to clean up after him. So it’s time for Mitchell to Prove a Point: When Cam comes home, he’s appalled to see that the kitchen is still a mess, and Mitchell ups the ante by making the house even dirtier. It all culminates in a Chekhov’s gun moment, wherein if a home visit is rescheduled at the start of the episode, then the adoption agency rep will show up at the end when the house is a pigsty, and Mitchell has just finished creatively spraying Cam and Lily (“Do you want a princess hat?”) with whipped cream.
Mitchell’s not the only one who could use a little more support around the house. When Claire nearly runs Phil over at a particularly treacherous intersection (oblivious Phil had been partaking in a dangerous combo: “speed-walkin’ and Speedwagon”), safety-obsessed Claire takes it upon herself to petition for a stop sign. She requires 50 signatures to take her proposal to the city’s traffic committee and she needs help, but unlike the lady from The Blind Side, whose family supported her every step of the way, the rest of the Dunphys have other stuff going on. Alex has homework and/or a boyfriend to Skype with; Haley is “working on her college essay”; and Phil and Luke are trying to make the perfect YouTube video, a task that involves a basketball, Phil’s head, and Phil’s assertion that “if Luke thinks of me as one of his idiot friends, then I’ve succeeded as a dad.” (Guys, next time you want to make a viral video, take some shots of Stella jumping up and down while Gloria cooks breakfast — talented French bulldogs are YouTube gold!)
Ty Burrell is killing it this season — he can create funny little moments out of the most throwaway of lines, like when Phil greets Claire with a “hey, gurl,” all jokey and charming at once. And Julie Bowen, well, she’s certainly in a groove doing her harried-housewife-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown thing. But maybe some fresh blood will break her out of her routine. David Cross, as the gleefully obnoxious head of the city’s traffic committee, has the potential to be a great foil for both. Last night was a promising introduction, as Claire does battle with Cross’s petulant bureaucrat, the type who’s more concerned with what kind of cake he’s eating than he is in hearing out Claire’s request. She gets off to a shaky start, but the Dunphy troops rally in time to help — Haley and Alex show up with extra signatures while Luke and Phil bring a specially made video featuring Phil’s alter ego, loverboy Clive Bixby, this time doing his PSA best (“STOP the madness”). But does the Dunphy’s Brady Bunch–style teamwork actually make an impact? The traffic committee seems decidedly unimpressed, with Cross’s character spitting out the much-discussed cake in disdain. It appears the battle has just begun, and we look forward to watching the Dunphys fight City Hall — one bald-headed, bespectacled jerkoff in particular.