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Modern Family Recap: Contentious Combinations

MODERN FAMILY - "Tableau Vivant" - It seems everyone has a bone to pick: Jay and Gloria get on each other's nerves while trying to simply order lunch at their local diner; Phil is put in the position of having to fire Mitchell; Cam and Claire have opposing theories on how to discipline children; and Manny is upset with Luke for accepting an award under false pretenses - all of which spells trouble for Alex who is counting on them to all work together for a "living art" school project display, on "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, MAY 16 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/PETER "HOPPER" STONE)
NOLAN GOULD, RICO RODRIGUEZ

Mid-May is an odd time to observe Thanksgiving, but last night’s episode of Modern Family had an undeniable Turkey Day theme. It featured a skewed take on a traditional holiday tableau when, in what might be the most ambitious high school art project ever, the family dresses up in old-timey attire to re-create Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting Freedom From Want, while Jay tries to introduce Gloria to the Jay Pritchett sandwich (complete with turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese, peppers, and anchovies). And, as we come to expect both from family holidays and from this past season of Modern Family, what all this bonding time leads to first and foremost is a ton of bickering.

Let’s give thanks, then, that last night featured some new combinations of combative characters (Mitchell and Phil make surprisingly satisfying enemies), even as Jay and Gloria’s fighting felt as fresh as week-old leftovers. In the world of Modern Family, of course, the realizations and resolutions come as fast and furious as the insults and jabs; no sooner does everything fall apart that everything gets pieced back together again (until next time). Modern Family–style conflict resolution is unrealistic and simplistic and pat, and also — as with the best episodic comedies — lots of fun. Let’s meet the combatants:

Manny vs. Luke
The uptight kid versus the borderline-psychopath. Luke is up for an award at school for extinguishing a fire in the science lab. Manny is the only other person who knows that Luke’s heroism is undercut by the fact that Luke started the fire himself (he was just trying to make Luketonium!).  Manny appeals to Luke’s conscience and begs him not to accept the award, but c’mon. This is Luke. As he so aptly says, if they gave out awards for starting fires, he’d get those too. Manny should know better than to invoke the American flag in an effort to make Luke see the error of his ways — he’ll just see a cool place under which to accept his award. The verdict: No big thrills here, but any chance we get to see gleefully amoral Luke steal a scene is welcome.

Phil vs. Mitchell
When two megapolite guys get vicious. It all starts with a classic Modern Family misunderstanding: Mitchell thinks he’s doing Phil a favor by taking on some work at Phil’s agency; Phil thinks Mitchell is doing an awful job (which he is, on purpose — so that the agency doesn’t grow too dependent on his amazing work). Conflict-avoidant Phil must practice how he’s gonna fire Mitchell (Haley, sneaking in late from a party, has her own amusing misunderstanding with her ever-trusting dad), but when he shows up at Mitchell’s door he can’t do much more than stress-blink and convolutedly compliment his brother-in-law. He is the anti–Donald Trump. (Ty Burrell is always a favorite, but the blinking felt a little over-the-top — what a weird new tic to suddenly pull out for the 71st episode of the show). If it weren’t for the interview segments that allow the characters to tell us what’s really on their minds, we’d just think these two men were trying to kill each other with a weirdly fraught kind of kindness.

Phil and his co-workers think he has already successfully fired “the lazy guy,” but then later that day Mitchell shows up at the office. “Is he disgruntled? He looks disgruntled,” an office mate asks, to which Phil replies, “No, he always looks like that.” Neither man can say what’s on his mind until Phil lures Mitchell into an elevator, hops out, and quickly says, “You’re fired.” And then the elevator jams, leaving Mitchell, all Laura Dern in Enlightened-style, to deal with insults from his former co-workers until, hours later, he eventually gives up and lies down in the elevator in a fetal position (“Lazy”). The verdict: We always knew Phil was a wuss, but it’s his ruthlessness that’s surprising. Still, when Mitchell sheepishly turns in his parking pass and keys thanks to a little prodding from Cam, we know it’s the right thing to do.

Claire vs. Cameron
The megaobnoxious parent versus ... the megaobnoxious parent. When Cameron visits Claire’s, he lets Lily run amok, tromping around and futzing with the lights. When Claire tries to gently discipline her, Cam reveals that he and Mitchell are ”trying not to use the word ‘no’” with Lily, as that would cause her to rebel. They prefer to distract her. She also has no proscribed nap time; she is her own nap captain. (But wait, wasn’t it just last week that they had Lily on a leash? That’s some confusing parenting).

This story line couldn’t come at a better moment, with Time’s controversial cover prompting so many of us to weigh in with our own ideas of what makes for good or healthy or practical child-rearing. We can all probably agree that Cam’s methods are ridiculous, but of course no one objects more so than Claire. Claire, whose 14-year-old stress case of a daughter is drinking coffee, whose son is receiving awards for extinguishing fires he’s set, and whose other daughter chooses to call her Uncle Cam to pick her up late at night when her designated driver is drunk. When a spoon falls in the drain and Cam reaches in to grab it and gets caught, it’s time for Claire to prove a point. It’s a dramatic, Jaws-like moment: Can Cam remove his finger before Lily gets her hands on the garbage disposal switch? Claire certainly won’t “shred her confidence” by interfering. When Cam escapes at the last second, Claire laughs maniacally — any humanity she’d shown in the last few episodes melts away with her deranged cackle. The verdict: Claire was being all “know-it-all-y” again, but Cam could learn to take criticism a bit more gracefully as well.

Jay vs. Gloria
And so we’re back to that pesky turkey sandwich. Jay takes Gloria to Lenny’s Delicatessen and shows her the menu, where the Jay Pritchett sandwich is prominently featured under the soups. “You were named after a sandwich?” asks Gloria. But it’s not until she meets Maxine, the stalwart waitress who seems to know all of the intimate details of Jay’s life, that Gloria decides she hates the Jay Pritchett. “It tastes like a fish and a turkey beat themselves to death with a pepper,” she gags, and it’s clear she has a bone to pick with overly friendly Maxine (or maybe Gloria just isn’t committed to Sparkle Motion). Then again, it’s a bit odd that Gloria has never been to the restaurant where her husband is such a regular that he’s got a sandwich named for him. Jay resents Gloria’s brutal honesty and calls for her to keep some things to herself.  Which, of course, leads Gloria to ask Jay what he keeps to himself. “You’re loud,” he says. Wow, that is the opposite of a revelation. It’s sad, it’s tired. But we’ll give points to Gloria because her reaction is one we haven’t seen before — whispering never sounded so loud or incensed. Verdict: Leave it to ever-rational Manny to clue Gloria in on the meaning of jealousy (“Ay, my poor sisters!”). We like to think there will be plenty of Maxine hugs in Gloria’s future.

Alex (not “Alice”) vs. Mr. Jarvis
The greatest joke of the episode is the idea that any of these characters could ever shut up and stay still for 90 seconds to create a tableau vivant for Alex’s art class. The actual scene was a brilliant moment for the cast, if not for perfectionist Alex. If we were to grade this episode, we might concur with Alex’s dreamy art teacher who gave her a B- because he expected more from her. Here’s hoping next week’s season finale lives up to its full potential.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC