The first big election of 2012 proved to be a heartbreaker when last night we learned that Claire Dunphy lost her bid for city council. She was a long shot, but boy, were we rooting for her. Finally, a job in which her pugnacity, her competitive spirit, her drive to succeed would be put to good use — and outside the confines of her household.
Many doors could have opened for Councilwoman Claire and for Modern Family in general, a show that often feels like the family-oriented equivalent of a locked room mystery in which all of the usual suspects are gathered in the same compact space. Extremely insular. Regardless, last night’s episode was directed with aplomb by Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad’s Walter White). There may not have been any big surprises, but he did manage to seamlessly pace an episode with a lot of moving parts and allow each member of the cast (minus Lily, did anyone even miss Lily?) to shine.
On Election Day, everyone in the family is assigned a task to help Claire get out the vote — the overarching joke of the night is that, despite all sorts of good intentions, very few of them actually accomplish much of anything. Cameron and Mitchell campaign for Claire in a tricked-out former taco truck with a loud speaker from which they shout out all sorts of terrible punny slogans: “The choice is Claire!” etc. They have a good run when they discover that the car’s microphone is an instrument of great power that they can use to prevent littering and other offenses (“Hey, Dragon Tattoo, no jaywalking!”), and to critique local establishments.
And then they do that thing that any sitcom ever made does if there’s a microphone around: They have a conversation that’s meant to be private, but what do you know? The mike is on! So when they’re discussing the gay guy that Lily’s preschool teacher Sandy is engaged to, Sandy (and everyone else on the street) hears them. They must then convince Sandy that although her fiancé is a walking gay stereotype — He dances! He gossips! He likes flowers! — that he is actually as straight as … Hugh Jackman. (Cam saw him at a restaurant and they had no chemistry.) Wouldn’t it be great if one day Max from Happy Endings could do a crossover episode, just to show the guys that not every gay man is a big flamboyant cliché? In any event, it seems unlikely that they got many voters out for Claire.
Meanwhile, Phil is tasked with shuttling a group of 50 senior citizens to the polls, but he only gets around to transporting one — Luke’s BFF Walt (the always hilarious Philip Baker Hall). Walt is like a prickly old obstacle course for Phil to maneuver: Walt needs his glasses, he needs a new oxygen tank, he needs food to take his pills, he forgets things (as Luke so astutely points out early in the show, that’s a thing that old people do). Walt’s dialogue reads like Things Crotchety Old Men Say — “I can’t even see the ballot. I mark the wrong box, next thing you know I’ll be married to a guy.” “I didn’t fight a war so some politician could tell me where I have to stop my car” — and it’s fun to see eager-to-please Phil jump through his persnickety hoops all day long. The end result? One measly vote for Claire.
Okay, so Jay doesn’t really have a task. All he needs to do is vote. But when he shows up to the polls with Gloria and Manny, he makes a hasty exit with a sketchy explanation, later explaining to Gloria that he saw Dottie, the first woman he dated after divorcing Dede, working the polls. He hasn’t seen Dottie since they broke up. (“You dated a Dottie after Dede?” asks Gloria, and it’s true, those names conjure up images of dowdy matrons — the exact opposite, of course, of Gloria.) Then Jay explains to the camera that he didn’t actually break up with Dottie; he slipped out of the house after they “you know,” and he never called her again. Who knew that Jay was such a frat boy? Eventually he returns to the polls, quickly fills out a ballot, and runs into Dottie. A rightfully embittered Dottie holds his ballot hostage and refuses to put it in the box, which leads Jay to say this uncharacteristically raunchy little nugget: “You don’t have to do anything. Just let me put it in. (I shouldn’t have said that.)” Zero votes for Claire.
Claire puts Alex in charge of the phone banks, where she supervises Luke, Gloria, Manny, and Haley to varying degrees of success. Luke makes lofty promises (“If you vote for Claire Dunphy, you won’t have to pay taxes for the rest of your life”); Gloria finds it’s difficult to get people to do what she wants over the phone when they can’t actually see her; Manny is a natural, full of charm and sweetness; and Haley is preoccupied with the mail. She’s been rejected from five colleges, and she only has one shot left. Manny might’ve eked out a few votes for Claire.
And then there’s the candidate herself. As an inept local newspaper reporter (he’s actually in ad sales) is interviewing Claire at the polls, Alex notices a pesky tag sticking out of her mom’s power suit. Frazzled Claire hastily bites it off, which is when we learn that she has a fake tooth owing to an old ice-skating accident. With a front tooth missing, not only does Claire now look like a hillbilly, she sounds like a lisping drunk (but that’s not her drunk voice!). She straightens herself out as best she can until she’s hit in the mouth with a mike while appearing on a radio show, and is thus forced to spend her time on “A Matter of Record” discussing thafety and thewage and thuthtainability. Claire’s never more lovable than when she’s a mess.
The entire day has been a disaster, but that night at the election results party at the Dunphy house, Claire gives a heartfelt thanks to the whole family. They smile back at her, all close and comfy as if they’re posing for a family portrait or a cast photo (do real families ever stand so close together?). When Claire gets the bad news over the phone (and Phil switches the “Congratulations Claire” sign to the “Condolences Claire” sign), she tries to keep a stiff upper lip, but ugh, our hearts break for her. There’s a frustrating sense that she could’ve been great, but perhaps her loving, supportive family is holding her back more than they’re helping.
She bravely goes to the kitchen to get a glass of wine, and it’s Haley who comes to comfort her. Haley, who understands how embarrassing it is to fail at something you’ve worked so hard for. Haley, who steals the spotlight from Claire when she announces that her last-chance college letter has arrived. Haley, whom the entire family then gathers around as she opens the letter to find she’s made the waiting list. “We’ll take it!” shouts Claire.
And though the night’s victory belongs to Haley, in the last minute of the show, we’re treated to a little gift from Councilman Duane Bailey (bummer that David Cross couldn’t make a cameo appearance, just to be magnificently smarmy once more): a stop sign. The stop sign that Claire had been fighting for, the reason she ran for city council in the first place. It’s a small victory, but meaningful. Here’s hoping the show continues to find new challenges for Claire, ones that allow her to break free of the fam every now and then to show the outside world that she’s formidable in her own right.