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Modern Family Recap: The Not-So-Great Lukini

MODERN FAMILY - "The Butler's Escape" - Luke wants to quit magic and Phil just can't seem to accept it. Meanwhile, one of Gloria's new pregnancy symptoms is snoring and she's keeping the whole house awake, forcing Jay to take desperate measures; and Mitch and Cam's household dynamic is put to the test when they decide to swap duties -- Mitch staying at home with Lily while Cam goes off to work at his new job as the music teacher at Luke and Manny's school -- on "Modern Family"

Step right up, haters. (Which, let the record show, I have never been one of, in regards to this series.) After three strong, this-is-why-we-like-this-show installments, Modern Family rolled out an early fourth season dud. This episode contained barely any elements the show does well, and highlighted almost all its dull and ugly facets.

The cold open was a bad omen — so few laughs, such minimal development of anything intriguing. Luke's doing magic and is called the Great Lukini? Gloria is snoring? (Snoring?!) Cameron's up late playing music? Two brief laughs — a surly, sleepy Lily unplugging Cam's keyboard and chucking the cord; Manny, still the beneficiary of some seriously unfunny-proof writing, tossing off, "Ocupado, big guy, find another foxhole" — do little to stop this from being a naked invocation for the drabness to follow.

Let's start with Cam's joke, "Here comes treble." Not only is it a long-standing pun on The Office, it's well known enough to be the title of an upcoming episode featuring Stephen Colbert. Come on. I love a pun as much as the next guy slavering over just about any horrible pun (drinking coffee and discussing Metallica last week, I said Metallicoffee and fully expected a high five), but there are vast continents of untapped musical puns to mine. Four episodes in is too early to be getting even a little lazy, especially after all that Emmy-reaping and salary-hiking.

If this was a quality episode, I wouldn't waste time taking issue with a throwaway punch line. But it was indicative of the whole uninspired 22 minutes. Cam serving up a frantic monologue on micromanaging? Alex, donning the shirt of 1,000 frilly thingies, being an asshole to her mom and brother, smashing Luke's face into a cereal box? (Violence was the wrong place to grope for a laugh, but I can vouch that sibling-on-sibling cereal box face-slamming is a genuine American move.) Even Phil's penchant for magic is a yawner and, again, previously (and superiorly) by a lovable doofus on The Office. (Michael the Magic!) A prolonged, cringe-worthy first day of school for Cam? Mitch playing the inept dad? A GREAT RUSH LIMBAUGH JOKE? Just exhausting.

A separate aside regarding the scientific weekly charting of Claire's pettiness, cattiness, and absolutely unnecessary occasional awfulness: Who are the people laughing at Claire's villainlike obsession with Gloria's rising weight? Reveal yourselves. You're the ones who liked her pet name for the baby last week, "Jay and Gloria's Little Accident," aren't you? Anyway, still hoping Claire gets some sympathetic humanity soon, since she's not an actual flawed person but a sitcom writer's hammy punching bag who only rarely receives apparel that is not workout-oriented. I'm pulling for you, Julie Bowen. You co-starred in Ed, a show that resides in the innermost circle of my heart. They didn't dress you as a human sports bra!

Even the final act's gooey "we've all learned something today" moments flop. Jay and Gloria's resolution is predicated on a brutally unamusing slap in the face. (Two instances of out-of-the-blue violence. Yeehaw!) Cam and Mitchell hug and bond over how wretched Claire is — followed by her calling the guys ladies! Phil and Luke's moment swivels on a line even the most giving, mindful, positive parents would, in my estimation, be a little loco to spout: "Nothing you decide will ever disappoint me." This show pulls laughs and awwws out of me very easily very regularly. But nothing ... you decide ... will EVER disappoint me?

It took me three quarters of the episode to realize we were Haleyless, which is a problem of its own. But would Hayley have cured this thing, even if her credit roll appearance did showcase a couple of decent zingers?

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I'll offer a few pleasantries: Lily's "I heard that!" in response to one of Mitch's staple to-camera quips was good. Claire's response to "something" bothering Luke, assuming he meant Alex — "Yeah, it's really bothering me, too, but I think it's gonna be rich, so we better be nice to it" — was that rare, once-or-so-per-episode moment where Claire's smallness redeems itself with something difficult to avoid smiling at. And Luke exiting a family argument with a smoke bomb disappearance was a winner.

I'm confident the show will come back at full strength soon enough — high hopes for the Halloween episode. Until then, a bonus feature for the haters: Brad Bird, writer-director behind Ratatouille and The Incredibles and director of the last Mission: Impossible, went H.A.M. on ModFam right in tandem with this episode: "Tried to watch the much-lauded MODERN FAMILY for 1st time tonight, but was put off by twitchy, affected, unmotivated camera work. Bailed." That's why you can't have an off week this early, Modern Family. You made the guy who made Ratatouille sad.

Photo: Jordin Althaus/ABC