Modern Family Recap: Competitive Spirit

Photo: Peter “Hopper” Stone/ABC

“Aren’t we all just fragile eggs hiding behind bubble wrap and bravado?” Leave it to Manny to turn a simple school project into a statement on the human condition. But then again, the egg is sort of a perfect metaphor for last night’s episode of Modern Family. It’s a symbol of vulnerability and new beginnings (see Phil’s Gloria-assisted emotional breakthrough) even as it hints at circularity (see Claire and Jay’s “haven’t we already seen this a zillion times before?” competitive streak gone amok); it’s a beacon of fertility (see the potential adoptive mom whom Mitchell and Cam jump through hoops to impress) and it’s second only to the banana peel as an excuse for comedy to go broad (see Claire slipping on Luke’s broken egg as if she were the fourth member of the Three Stooges). And also, maybe the egg is a religious symbol, because it was absolutely a miracle that there was virtually no inter-couple bickering in the entire episode. Hallelujah and amen.

It all starts with a school assignment: Manny and Luke must design a carton that will keep a raw egg from breaking when dropped from a height of one story. The boys struggle (“What if I’m the container?” asks Luke as he shoves an egg in his mouth and prepares to launch himself over the banister) until Manny suggests to Jay that Luke’s project will be the best in the class because Claire will do it for him. After all, she even cuts his grapes for him (“I figure if you can eat a chicken finger, you can tear your way through a grape,” says a perplexed Jay). So then it’s on. Claire and Jay totally hijack the boys’ project, intimidating and manipulating each other in order to win. This is just what Jay and Claire do, and have always done. The story goes that Jay always wanted someone to throw a ball with in the backyard, but he never attended the one Mitchell threw(!). Claire was the closest thing he had to a competitive son.  

Which is supposed to explain why Claire bails on helping her husband with his business presentation, and also why, when she creepily tries to bribe her know-it-all daughter for help with the project, Alex says to her, “Get a mirror. You’re gonna look at it and see a crazy woman. She needs your help.” (Claire gives herself a look, along with a little “You’re fine,” that reminds us that Julie Bowen maybe won an Emmy for a reason.) It’s a nice reveal, then, as Jay and Claire both successfully complete the mission while Luke and Manny look on from the sidelines, that Jay credits nature, not nurture, for making Claire a fighter — she came out of the womb that way, and that’s what he loves about her. Aw. That the always predictable Pritchett fighting spirit made both Jay and Claire vulnerable to Manny’s manipulations? (He set them against each other to get them to do his work for him.) Well, serves them right. And if Alex appears to be carrying on the family’s insane competitive streak? Well, at least she’s got a really cool picture of Emily the Strange on her bedroom wall (Did you catch that? It would be an excellent plot twist if Alex grew up to be a goth girl).

While his wife and father-in-law are off behaving like children, Phil behaves like a deranged motivational speaker. He’s hosting a real-estate seminar for his new firm, and he’s going about it in a Phil way — with bad puns (“Keyp your cool” is but one of his keys to success), a confetti cannon, a banner unfurling, autograph signings, and a free mouse pad under the chair of one lucky attendee, Oprah-style. You know, all the ingredients to make him appear totally dependable and professional to potential clients. He enlists Haley as announcer and prop master, and Gloria as a plant in the audience to ask one final key question. With their roles rehearsed, Haley and Gloria slip out to go to the beauty salon (Haley needs a mani/pedi to impress a school hottie with a foot fetish) while Phil does his vocal exercises. When they leave the salon, they realize that Gloria’s car was towed and they’re stranded, and without their help, Phil’s presentation is a (hilarious) disaster. Haley begs Gloria to take the blame for their absence, as Phil totally puts Gloria on a pedestal and won’t get mad at her. But Gloria wants Phil to get mad. She’s the kind of woman whose phone calls with relatives involve the phrases  “you crazy old witch,” “go kill yourself,” and “I love you.” Yelling is a way to express love. So when she returns to find Phil dejectedly sweeping confetti off the floor (as Phil literally puts her on a pedestal), Gloria gets mad that Phil won’t get mad at her. Which causes Phil to actually allow himself to be mad (hot!) which causes Gloria to cry, because his ability to express anger toward her means they’re really family. It’s a scene that manages to be silly and profound at the same time, much like the best moments on the show.

While Phil’s finally learning how to get mad, Cameron and Mitchell are trying to impress a prospective birth mother. Remember how Cam and Mitchell wanted to adopt another baby? Well, we finally revisit that plotline, better late than never. The meeting is like the opposite of a first date, Mitchell explains: They don’t want sex but they do want a baby. So they band together to literally do a song and dance for a ditzy yet demanding mom-to-be. This woman may not care about dolphins, she might think East Dakota is one of the 52 states, and she might be terrible at feng shui, but Cam reminds Mitchell that they just need to smile and nod and not rock the boat. It’s good to see them working together for a change! All goes well until they perform a rousing lounge-act-style duet of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (the birth father is a musician, so music is important), and Mitchell’s performance in particular impresses their guest. She thought Cam was a little pitchy. Uh-oh. But she likes Mitchell and Cam enough to hint that she’ll choose them as adoptive parents. Right after the group hug, as the sparkling cider is being popped, Cam cannot help himself.  Because somehow Mitchell’s boyfriend is the one who has that Pritchett competitiveness gene, and now Cam must prove he’s a good singer. He launches into a bad karaoke rendition of “If You Leave Me Now,” a song that actually makes the birth mother decide to keep her baby. Oops. A bit of competitive spirit is one thing, it seems, but invoking the sweet soft rock sounds of Chicago? That’s just dangerous.

Modern Family Recap: Competitive Spirit