Leap day appears to be a holiday mostly celebrated on TV. If 30 Rock created an elaborate mythology out of it, and Parks and Rec celebrated leap baby Jerry Gergich’s Sweet Sixteen, then last night’s Modern Family continued to explore that perfect-for-sitcoms ideal of February 29. We get to see how the family behaves on a day devoted to breaking out of routines and being adventurous — a day for doing something extraordinary. Which is why it was a bit disappointing to see Modern Family remain in its comfort zone. There will rarely be an episode of Modern Family that’s an overall flop — the writing is too clever, the actors too transcendent to do bad work — but last night lacked the emotional intelligence we’ve come to expect from the show, those glimpses of genuineness amid the more madcap moments that ultimately make Modern Family feel so relatable.
Or maybe we’re just monstruating.
Leap day, it turns out, is a real horror show in the Dunphy household. It begins with both Phil and Claire getting psyched for a day of risk-taking — they’re planning to skip work and school to take the entire immediate family, along with Manny, to a trapeze class (“I can be spontaneous every four years,” Claire brags). All goes well until that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial comes on, and all three Dunphy ladies sit on the couch and start crying. Why? We’d like to think it’s just because they’re human, and no human can resist tearing up at the sight of all of those sad, abused dogs. Seriously, try it. We’ll wait. But Phil notices their moodiness, their short tempers, their overall emotionalism, and comes to one conclusion: their menstrual cycles have aligned, and now they represent Satan’s trifecta. Clearly, the boys can’t go trapezing with these deranged women. Remember that sweet and nuanced moment last week when Phil and Haley hugged after Phil learned she wasn’t a virgin? Well, forget about it. Because here come the period jokes. Alex even pours OJ in her cereal and mistakenly puts two socks on one foot — ladies be stupid when they’re on the rag!
But at least there’s a clever conceit that elevates this tired sitcom cliché to undeniably hilarious levels: It plays out like a horror movie. There’s Phil, who’s scared. He’s got his sidekicks, Manny and Luke, with whom he tries to concoct a plan to outsmart these treacherous females (“The woman’s actually taken great pains to hide the monster she’s become” Phil warns). Claire repeatedly tells the camera that all Phil has to do is talk to her like a rational human being instead of tip-toeing around and making her feel crazy, but no! (Is it weird that in the horror movie episode Claire is way less scary than she can sometimes be? Here she’s so sensible! Not shrill! Not mean!) When their first attempt to leave the ladies behind and go to trapeze alone fails, there’s a moment when it looks like Luke will be forced to stay home with the zombielike ladies. Manny, being the reasonable one, shrugs his shoulders and goes home. Phil, being way more nuts than any of the women, then plots with Luke to use fake blood to fake a minor injury that will give the two of them an excuse to “go to the doctor.” But when Luke messes up and overdoes the fake blood so badly that the bathroom looks (and later sounds) like a murder scene from a slasher flick, their second attempt to dodge the coven is also foiled. If later Phil fakes a little PMS of his own and the Dunphys all kiss and make up, and Phil even gets his moment on the trapeze, don’t be fooled. It’s clear he’s still terrified of the evil that threatens to surface … monthly. Bwahaha. Too bad he could never talk to Claire about it like an adult.
In related news, it turns out that Cam is 10 years old (doesn’t that explain so much?). Yes, Cam shares a birthday with Jerry Gergich — leap day is Cam’s 10th or 40th, depending on whom you ask. Mitchell knows better (as do we!) than to even think that Cam would be satisfied with a quiet evening at home, so for ages Mitchell’s been planning an elaborate Wizard of Oz–themed surprise party. And certainly no one will be surprised that things don’t go according to plan, that Cam snoops around and questions Mitchell’s party-planning abilities, and that all sorts of wacky high jinks ensue. As the house is transformed into an impressive technicolor Oz, Cam pulls up just long enough to remind Mitchell of the devastating twister that tore through his hometown last month. Oops. Mitchell only realizes at this very instance that a party featuring a Vornado fan that blows on guests as they walk in the door might be a tad insensitive! Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that two men approach the house and say, “Hey.” “Hey.” “We’re the monkeys.” This must be the only flying monkeys/Monkees joke in recent history, and on a fitting night — R.I.P., Davy Jones. Let’s also acknowledge that this scene allows Jesse Tyler Ferguson to shine — with his “I love you dance” to distract nosy Cam, and the resigned yet graceful way he links arms with the actors playing the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, walking up the yellow brick road up to the house.
Plan B is a hastily arranged, yet elegant evening boat ride — too bad that although the pier looks lovely, it smells like “puke married poop and had a ceremony in my nose.” Thanks, Luke! Plan B is foiled by that ghastly smell (dead whale), an overabundance of party guests (a bunch of random extras standing in the back behind the family — even Pepper and Longines couldn’t make it), and Gloria’s fist in the Captain’s face (more on that in a sec). Mitchell tries to explain to Cam how everything went amok, and Cam is straight-up ungrateful, whiny like a child. But, “You’re a 40-year old man!” Mitchell cries. Then follows the longest moment of silence in Modern Family history (two seconds?). Will Mitchell get through to Cam? Will Cam realize he’s being petty and ridiculous? Nope. The Mitchell-Cameron cycle of bickering will continue. Cam cries the melodramatic tears of a kid having a temper tantrum, and Mitchell realizes that all Cam wants on his midlife-crisis-y 40th birthday is to be 10 again. So off to the amusement park they go. The resolution feels flat, too familiar, but at least it ends with the line, “You’re still that sexy 8-year-old I fell in love with.”
If the leap-day episode is all about grown men acting like children, then maybe Jay is the only one who truly takes a risk on the 366th day of the year — by behaving like an adult. Manliness is a theme that Modern Family loves to explore, especially in reference to stoic, emotionally withholding Jay. But this time around it’s okay for real men to wear pink robes, to moan when soup is too hot, or when a finger is cut by a salty cracker. And particularly, it’s okay to take the high road. When Gloria gets into a fight with a rowdy fellow soccer spectator at a sports bar, Jay does not defend her honor. Instead, he offers the dude a beer and moves Gloria to another table. Gloria, as hot-blooded as ever, is disappointed that Jay has forgone that “maaaanly protect your woman stuff.” It’s only when she gets a call from unstable Javier canceling his latest visit to see Manny that she realizes she’s glad Jay has grown out of being a fighter. Maybe manliness comes from being a mature, rational human being. Which is great for Jay — just don’t call him “Gramps,” or you’ll have Gloria to contend with.