The trip to Disneyland. It’s an enduring American tradition, all wholesome family fun and conspicuous consumption. It’s also a distinct television trope, nearly as prevalent as egg-sitting or having a character throw his back out. The Golden Girls did it, Roseanne did it, the majority of ABC’s TGIF lineup did it, and last night Modern Family got its turn to embrace corporate synergy and don its own pair of mouse ears.
And as with so many other sitcom clichés, it was up to Modern Family to, if not subvert it, then to improve upon it or in some way freshen it up. Though last night’s episode was not groundbreaking nor was it anywhere near the best the show has ever offered (when an amusement park is the special guest star, narrative takes second place to scenery), it was still diverting entertainment loaded with great one-liners and even a few tender moments. That’s Modern Family’s bread and butter, or, in this case, its enormous turkey leg and churro.
The family’s day at Disneyland is as frenetically paced as ever, with barely enough time to take in a scene before the camera pans to the next, but Jay is undoubtedly the main focus. Jay explains to the camera with a glass of scotch on his lap that when Mitchell and Claire were kids, he got into a terrible fight with Dede (don’t ever mess with a woman’s video recording of Dallas, Jay), and ended up taking the kids to Disneyland alone. There he had a string of Disney-related epiphanies: His marriage was beginning to resemble the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and he wanted to get off. It was only when he saw robot Abraham Lincoln discussing a man’s duty to keep the union together that he realized he couldn’t leave just yet. The idea of staying in a miserable, loveless marriage for the kids is a depressing one to consider at the Happiest Place on Earth, but the show leaves little time to contemplate the disparity.
Instead, we focus on Jay’s karmic reward for sticking it out, for maintaining his dysfunctional relationship until the kids were grown: Gloria. Did you ever notice that Gloria is kind of like a cartoon character herself? A combo of Jessica Rabbit and Minnie Mouse made all the more apparent when Jay, watching Gloria hobble around in impractically high heels for much of the day, buys her a pair of bright yellow slippers from the Bippity Boppity Boutique. “I’m in pain just thinking you’re in pain,” he says, and while he’s being the caring and considerate spouse to Gloria in a way he couldn’t be to Dede, there’s also the sense that he is taking care of Gloria in the same way that Cam and Mitchell tend to Lily. She’s like a big sexy baby. If there’s a weird level of infantilizing going on, it’s in sharp contrast to Manny, ever the grown-up, who has his face stuck in his phone for most of the trip, overzealously invested in a school stock market project (“Reuben, if you heard about that stock at a birthday party, it’s already too late!”). That Gloria admonishes him to act more like a kid while the two are sitting together on the Dumbo ride is a nice juxtaposition.
Meanwhile, the theme for the Dunphys’ segments of the evening is “It’s a small world after all.” We haven’t really heard much about Haley’s love life this season, but Claire has it in her head that Haley takes after her — she loves the bad boys (cue smirk from Phil). So Claire, who evidently doesn’t have enough to do now that her political dreams have faded away, invites generically good-looking Ethan along to Disneyland, in the hopes of fixing her eldest daughter up with him. And even though it’s Claire who is clearly most drawn to his dreamy blue eyes and 2200 SAT score, both Alex and Haley are impressed enough to spur a fun rivalry for Ethan’s affections. That is, until out of all the theme parks in all the world, who should show up but Dylan? Dylan, who was always a bright spot in seasons one and two, who broke our hearts when he ended his run abruptly in the first episode of the season, deciding to stay on at the dude ranch the family visited on their last vacation. It’s a toss-up who is more excited to see him — Haley or Phil. (At this stage, it’s Phil, much more than Claire, who clearly prefers the bad boys.)
It turns out that Dylan is back in town and doing a variety of embarrassing jobs at Disneyland. Haley’s rebel of a boyfriend is now doing decidedly un-edgy things like playing a Dapper Dan in the Disney version of a barbershop quartet (his voice sounds lovely!), and he never let her know he was back in town because he was ashamed. The show’s highlight is undoubtedly when Dylan shows up disguised in a borrowed Little John costume, doing a weird little dance (we don’t know what movie that dude is from either), eager to vanquish Ethan and win back Haley’s love. There’s no doubt that by the time Ethan pushes Dylan down to the ground, where he wobbles back and forth like this French Bulldog puppy, that Haley’s (and our) heart is in his oversize fluffy hands. Much to Claire’s chagrin, Haley and Dylan are officially back together, and we can’t wait to see what their new relationship status means for her post-high-school plans.
As excited as he is to see Dylan, Phil isn’t having the best time at Disneyland. You’d think that man-child extraordinaire Phil would be having the time of his life, especially now that Luke is tall enough to ride all the rides without spiking his hair, but Phil has gotten too old to keep up like he used to. The former king of roller coasters suffers from a debilitating case of motion sickness and goes through much of the episode with the coloring of a member of the cast of Dark Shadows, dizzily running after his eager son. Some of the least fussy, most heartwarming moments of the show come when ever-stoic Luke expresses his love for his father — in this case, he reassures Phil that they will continue to find cool stuff to do even when Phil is old. Luke will push Phil’s wheelchair as fast as it can go, or even push him up to the top of a hill and let go. Luckily, it won’t come to that anytime soon — Claire feels Phil’s forehead and realizes that he has a fever. Phew! Never was a man so happy to learn that he has the flu at Disneyland.
The episode’s best running joke involves Mitchell and Cameron’s own strategy for keeping up with an overeager child — they put Lily on a child safety tether (really, a leash). This opens the floodgates for all sorts of Lily-as-dog gags, from getting tangled with a set of twins (one of whom is named Rex), to chasing squirrels (Chip & Dale are chipmunks!). Mitchell in particular feels self-conscious — even Mr. Socks with Sandals glared at him — so it’s a relief when Jay eventually solves the problem by taking a page from Gloria. He buys Lily tiny high heels, Toddlers & Tiaras–style, and she can no longer run off so much as hobble. It’s a silly, mundane kind of plotline that surely many parents can relate to. But at a time when issues of same-sex relationships and civil rights are front and center in American politics, perhaps a mundane plotline about two gay men taking their adopted daughter to Disneyland on America’s most popular sitcom is, in fact, groundbreaking after all.