This Thanksgiving, it’s time we ask ourselves an important question: What Would Phil Dunphy Do? If it involves wacky ideas, silly impressions, lax parenting decisions or a childlike sense of wonderment and sincerity, it’s probably a Phil Dunphy move. Last night’s episode of Modern Family played out one of its most familiar themes, literally dividing the family into two teams: the realists (the Pritchetts) versus the dreamers (Phil and everyone else). The push and pull between the three main couples—all of whom have an Abbott and Costello straight man versus zany wacko dynamic—has always been the show’s lifeblood. If revisiting this dynamic sometimes comes at the detriment of plot and character development, well, at least it’s good for laughs.
It all starts when the Dunphys receive a visit from Kenneth, a former neighborhood kid who idolized Phil. Ten years later, Kenneth (played by The Book of Mormon star Josh Gad) is a schlubby charmer with sideburns and a green hoodie--fashion shorthand for a twenty-something who is either a college dropout and/or an Internet jillionaire. Kenneth is both--he is in town to buy a blimp. And he owes it all to Phil, who always told him to follow his heart. His reunion with Phil involves the most extravagant manshake ever—complete with step-dancing and belly slapping--and Claire, per usual, is grossed out. In fact, while Phil and Luke and Haley are warm and friendly and captivated by Kenneth’s success, Claire is shrill and cold and condescending (apparently Kenneth stared at her a little too long when he was a kid, and so somehow that makes being bitchy OK). That reaction seems precisely why, when Haley later accidentally dents Claire’s car, she and a guilt-stricken Alex go to great lengths to hide it from Claire—she’s terrifying!
It’s only later after Kenneth’s left and Phil and Luke are creatively setting up the kitchen for Thanksgiving with four little tables (bistro style!), and napkin origami, that Luke wonders why, if Kenneth made it big by using What Would Phil Dunphy Do as his mantra, why isn’t Phil the one who’s rich? The answer, of course, is Claire, who tells Phil to just set one long table and unfold his whimsical napkins. It’s Claire who has folded his dreams. Then we get a window into some of Phil’s best ideas that have been squelched by Claire—the rice pudding franchise (have you guys been to Rice to Riches in Soho? It’s a real thing!), the adult tricycles, and the potentially dangerous Real Head Scratcher ™. “I love you, Phil,” Claire says, “but—“. “Stop right there, Phil retorts, “I love your ‘I love you’, but I’m getting awfully tired of your ‘but’. (Yeah, I heard it.)”
Jay does his own creativity squelching when Manny builds a Thanksgiving centerpiece that frankly, seems a bit unsophisticated for a boy of Manny’s superior tastes. But Manny’s awfully proud—he’s even made a “making of” video for it—and Gloria, of course, doesn’t want to discourage him. She lavishly (and loudly) praises everything he does, even that collage he made to help them get through Katrina. But Jay thinks the mama’s boy is in need of a reality check, especially when Manny offers some helpful criticism of his own, regarding Jay’s legendary rice pilaf (“It just tastes a little flat…I think this is a job for cumin”). So as they arrive at the Dunphys for Thanksgiving dinner (Gloria decked out in her very best animal print, naturally), Jay tells Manny that he’s a talented kid, but the centerpiece is not his best work. When Gloria sees Manny dejectedly throwing the centerpiece in the trash because Jay said “it was a swing and a miss”, she screams, “Why? Why do you say dese thing, Jay?”, and Phil responds: “Because he’s a Pritchett!”
Mitchell does his own Pritchetty squelch when Cam tells (and re-tells) his great punkin chunkin story. We’re all familiar with Cam’s legendary childhood stories, yes? Well, this one is pretty straightforward—“Once Cam and his friends tried to slingshot a pumpkin across a football field”—but Cam is not one to shy away from embellishment. His version of the story involves an unseasonably warm (yet foggy!) November night in Missouri, a friend named Cody who may or may not have been KIA in Desert Storm, and it ends with the pumpkin going right through “the sunroof of a preacher man.” Cam is terribly offended when Mitchell questions the veracity of the story, so before Thanksgiving dinner Cam takes a poll: who believes that his punkin chunkin story is true? And here is where the family divides evenly: Jay, Claire, Mitchell and Alex are on one cynical, eye-rolling side; and the rest of the family (including Lily, who is probably too young to have an opinion) on the dreamier, less Pritchett-y side.
Because this is a Thanksgiving episode of a sitcom, there is only one way to resolve this dispute: the whole family abandons the meal that Claire spent eight hours cooking and heads over to the school football field to do their own punkin chunking. This is basically like a real life version of Angry Birds—complete with a slingshot—but with pumpkins instead of eggs, and Cam and Jay and Gloria as the birds. The Dreamers are giddy with excitement (“Do you think this could launch a human?” Luke asks), while the Realists stand on the sideline skeptically (“Knock, knock. Who’s there? Physics,” Claire snarks, even as she and her brother and father admit that they only naysay out of love). But when that first pumpkin lands splat in the middle of the field, the Realists find that they can’t gloat—they’re even a little disappointed. So the two sides come together to create the perfect pumpkin launcher—one that nearly comes close enough to plausibly explain the dent in Claire’s car. After all, Cam voice-overs, the dreamers and the realists complement each other—their relationships are symbiotic. And so ends another episode of Modern Family with a Life Lesson about tolerance of your partner and the importance of being understanding—a lesson that will surely sink in, at least until next week. Until then, Lily, watch your back—your cousin Luke still holds a grudge. The last punkin to be chunked could’ve been you!