After more than a month of fairly excellent episodes closing out 2012, Modern Family stumbles into 2013 with a belated New Year’s episode. The half-hour isn’t much more than some half-baked, stuck-together concepts orbiting a Billy Dee Williams cameo and a few good Lily moments.
The lack of any real emotional plot motor on this episode makes it tedious, and neither of the scenarios are thought out enough to give us much to chew on or laugh at. The grown-ups head to a weird, shabby getaway in Palm Springs and the kids stay home together, where Luke schedules a bedroom tonsil-hockey match and everyone else kinda just hangs out.
The cold open centers on grapes and shallowness. “I paid for them!” “My rich husband!” Et cetera. Not a good first impression.
In Palm Springs, the Mitch/Cam and Claire/Phil story lines overlap too much to even draw a respectable Venn diagram. Both couples are fretting about getting old and predictable and losing their spontaneity and spice, a.k.a. parenthood. Claire is worried she and Phil haven’t rocked each other’s socks in ONE MONTH, and since this is network TV and we’re not allowed to consider the existence of sexually involved gay men, Cam and Phil are dying to … dance.
But who knew Luke was a sexual creature? That’s the real question. The little fella’s upstairs making out behind closed doors and his sisters have no clue how to react — they’ve done that, but he’s younger, but they’re not his parents, but, but! And hey, isn’t it off-putting that Alex and Haley have eight years between them in real life? (These are the kinds of thoughts I was left to ponder during this episode.)
I understand from the comments that there are folks out there who don’t ignite with joy at the sight of the wonderful Lily. A shame. But may I submit that her deadpan delivery — surely a bone of contention with the haters — fits how psychopathically stoic she was as a baby? Different actress, I know. Same character, still. It’s a great through-line. “I'm cold and I saw a coyote,” Lily says after ringing the doorbell, having wandered the property for who the hell knows how long. (A nod to the great Grandpa Simpson quote, "I'm cold and there are wolves after me"?) “Is anyone watching me?” she asks after coloring on the walls and then her face.
Manny, who does some strenuous neck-bobbing and absurd facial calisthenics in the name of lady-wooing, gets somewhere near his standard allotment of quality zingers. His signature beverage is the Piña Delgado — “it's cool, it's sweet, and it's not afraid to embrace its own whimsy.” His peace-out to an icy blind date: “Oh, and if you're hungry for broccoli later, you'll find a piece in your teeth.”
“Let's go find that hot spring and start this New Year off with a … sex in a hot spring,” Phil tells Claire. It’s a nice gesture, reminding us these are two people who love each other and find each other appealing, but all the writing in the world can’t turn this solid comedy team into a believably into-each-other couple. (Side note about Claire easily recalling their last sexual encounter as the day after Thanksgiving ‘cause she remembers how turned on she was after getting some erotically good deals on Christmas gifts: Sometimes I’d appreciate if the show’s love for the facile “females + retail = WOMEN BE SHOPPIN! RIGHT??” could be done with.)
Jay is cool eating cherries jubilee by himself.
Billy Dee Williams shows up in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, playing himself and a guy who fits right into Jay's tradition of making meh gay jokes. Still, it’s always good to spend a little time with Lando, and we harvest one clever exchange: “I’m Billy Dee Williams.” “I'm Gloria the wife.” We learn every night is New Year's for Billy Dee Williams. Not sure what that means, but he makes it sound cool. (You guys ever seen Billy Dee Williams's Colt 45 ads? You guys remember Billy Dee Williams in the Nikki and Paulo episode of Lost?)
“How long has she been there?” Jay asks when he realizes Gloria’s overheard a questionable remark. Someone get this guy a ticket to the “(S)he’s Right Behind Me, Isn’t (S)he?” supercut.
When this show doesn’t roll out a well-designed episode with honestly humorous gags, it’s easy to start envisioning a little dashboard-style dial in the corner, one where a needle flickers manically between Awful and Great. Claire uncomfortably talking sex on the couch, complete with sounds and hand gestures? The needle edges toward Great. Claire and Phil, postcoitus in the hot tub: “So, was it worth my meltdown?” Claire asks. “It always is,” Phil answers. The needle irretrievably plummets to Awful. The tank is empty and the closest refill station is at least seven days away.