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Modern Family Recap: We Bought a House

MODERN FAMILY - "Diamond in the Rough" - Manny and Luke's little league team unexpectedly makes it into a playoff game, so Claire and Cameron scramble to find a location and decide to do a makeover on a rundown field. Inspired, Claire and Cam want to try their hand at flipping a house while they're at it, and Phil and Mitchell fight over who will be the bad guy to tell them no. Meanwhile, Gloria tries a bonding technique by using a microphone to sing to the baby in utero, which definitely incites a reaction from Jay, on "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network.

This Modern Family hit on some serious family topics hidden in the guise of a mostly jokey episode. Haley’s cold-open comment about a job making you feel actually worth something — “no offense, mom” — isn’t said meanly, or lingered upon, but the pathos is there. Sure enough, midway through the half-hour, we learn that housewife, cause-joiner, and project-spearheader Claire has unsuccessfully applied to five jobs in the past few weeks. She’s spiraling, feeling like a financial non-contributor to her three-child, single-income family. “I went to college, you know? And I just want to be able to contribute to my kids’ education and I want to be able to buy my husband a present with my own money.” It makes it sadder, and realer, that Claire’s job hunt hasn’t been a storyline or even something we’ve been privy to until now. She feels awkward, maybe ashamed, about facing up to the idea that stay-at-home-momdom isn’t cutting it for her anymore. She’s unfulfilled. Like I said: Dark. Realistic.

Then Claire’s comment that there was also this to-die-for pair of boots does seem a teensy bit materialistic and shallow, but screw it, it’s actually not — Claire can be selfish and an altruistic parent and wife. People aren’t characters; sometimes they have a few sides.

One of the great things about this show is that the kids are growing while the adults are locked somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. Phil's fortune-cookie advice to Haley on her first day of work sounds like what a parent jotted down after Googling good advice for parents to give kids: "Work hard; keep your eye on the ball; stay focused." It’s going to be interesting watching the show let Haley and her parents grow closer to the point of being equals. They can’t sustain the same parent/teen dynamic too much longer.

Mitchell’s hates, summarily listed at last, are Farm, Fizbo, and Farmbo. The first one is especially tragic, as Cam’s farm stories are truly inexhaustible. Tonight’s full-named specter of Cam’s memory is Billy-Bob Sheinberg. (Fun fact: If you were born on a farm, you must have a hyphenated first name — two syllables-hyphen-one syllable — and a two-syllable last name.)

Hey, Luke and Claire don't really interact much, do they? Does anyone remember a Claire-and-Luke talking head aside any time recently? Seeing them on the couch was weird.

Gloria’s been talking to her baby via microphone and belly suction-cups, showing the fetus around the house, around the no-doubt staggering shoe collection. Jay's still cementing the guarantee the baby will be a girl by referring to it as a boy. He’s got a hermit-y line he'll be spouting the whole episode — "ah, you're gonna do whatever you want, why bother?" Manny's hilarious retort to his belly-bound sister, said in Jay’s same wisdom-for-all-occasions tone: "Get used to that. Sometimes you just gotta let him go — then he eats some sherbet and falls asleep."

The interchange between sensitive Manny and sporty Luke, always solid, is dynamite here. "You gotta keep your eyes open!" “It's not natural when a ball's hurtling at your face!" "Will you choke up a little?" "Probably when they play the national anthem." Luke beans Manny with the ball. Twice.

The subject of buying a house and flipping it arises. Phil's emotional blame stunt is genius; it's slapstick played out in family dynamics rather than pies in faces. We fall down a hole of blackmail and dream-cheerleading battling fiscal honesty. And how funny is Mitchell's running gait?

Mitch, framed like an evil Bond baddie in all dark colors with Larry the white villain-cat on his lap, goes head-to-head with Phil “Chicken’s My Middle Name” Dunphy. Phil sits dramatically on the piano and we’re suddenly in a genre parody — it’s a passive-aggressiveness thriller, where the suspense comes from the dangers of resentment-landmines buried in every interaction.

Gloria's baby is definitely going to get some catharsis from Vulture’s supercut of Gloria shouting. "That's just taking a bath with a toaster,” Jay says of the prospect of raining on Gloria’s singing parade. He’s learning to keep his old-fashioned, questionable feelings to himself/to himself and the cameramen. Jay taking the mic and doing his masculine best to bond with the child is priceless. He’s being an ironic ham to distract Gloria, but he’s secretly loving it.

“Tough womb” may be the episode’s cleverest line, but there are a ton of quality blink-and-miss-them zingers — "you're preaching to the choir director,” "blue yarn to match your eyes but I should've picked black to match your heart,” "you literally saw a diamond in the rough," "Studies? You're 13, read a comic book."

It’s terrific seeing Claire and Cam do something amazing, but not as cool to have their accomplishment be used specifically to teach their significant others that it’s not ideal to disbelieve and condescend to your loved ones. The couples make up and, Claire and Cam’s competence proven, everyone agrees to partake in the house-flipping experiment. It’s so nice for Claire and, to a lesser extent, Cameron to get to be the sympathetic ones for once.

Up comes Jay, archetypal naysaying father. He’s blurting all the nasty gut-reactions Mitch and Phil have been feeling all episode — none of them know anything about construction, etc. etc. Then he lands on the one thing no one’s even had time to consider, one that’s not so easy to wriggle around: Family and business don't mix. But hey, the show needs a new plot engine, so, “we bought a house!”

Jay and Phil share the wizened narrator moment of the night (some relatable real-talk from Phil: "That's the funny thing about marriage: You fall in love with this extraordinary person and over time they begin to seem ordinary”). Gloria seems about to get her redemptive moment, stepping up to the mound to sing the national anthem Manny was already planning to get teary-eyed for. She nails the “ohh-ohh say can you,” then decimates the “see” and most words after, rolling her R’s spectacularly for “THE RRRRROCKETS RRRRED GLARRRE!” We see that Jay’s not just speaking sensitively to the camera for his confessional but sneakily delivering it to the baby. See? He does love it.

P.S.: No Alex this week. Why can't the show address when its characters are MIA? Would that feel too forced to insert a line about Alex being off at a debate club meet or something? It’s strange for a child to just not be part of a family for a week.

And that's it for ModFam in 2012. See you on Jan. 9.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC