In the first quarter of its second season, Modern Family feels like it’s still struggling a little to live up to the Emmy-winning highs of its first, negotiating the boundaries of its family-sitcom roots and attempting to transcend cheap laughs. It’s been coming along in fits and starts, but this episode in particular seemed stuck in a rut. It’s not that it wasn’t funny, but the show is feeling increasingly like it’s just drafting on its first-season popularity while it figures out how to move forward. This week it just idled in neutral, with uncommonly clumsy jokes and mostly rehashed conflicts.
Jay and Gloria are finally squabbling about something besides the fact that she’s a crazy woman from South America where they do bonkers stuff like eat pig guts, kill dogs, and believe in God. This time, it’s Gloria’s insistence on commemorating every relationship milestone, from first kisses to anniversaries to fights over forgotten anniversaries. Whatever she and Jay are supposed to be celebrating this time — he can’t remember, and she won’t remind him — is temporarily forgotten, though, after Manny gets into a forklift accident while visiting Jay at work. This probably would have been funnier last season when Manny could be relied upon for one or two kiddie witticisms per episode, but here he hardly gets a chance to crack wise. Once again, Gloria’s nuttiness is the punch line: “That wasn’t an ambulance ride, I drove you,” Jay tells Manny. “Then what was that siren?” “That was your mother.”
Manny’s fine, but only until he hears that Jay fired the stock guy who let him drive the lift; he then very politely storms out of the living room, considers a lawsuit, and ultimately resorts to trying to negotiate the guy’s rehire by offering information on where (and for what non-occasion) Gloria expects Jay to meet her for dinner. It doesn’t exactly work, but instead we get to hear some pretty important words from Jay: “Anyone who puts my kid in danger doesn’t get a second chance, ever.” “Did you just call me your kid?” “Oh, jeez.” But he did! And to think — it only took one and one-fourth seasons, a forklift accident, and the threat of legal action.
Cameron wants to get Lily into toddler acting, but Mitch isn’t so sure: “Let’s just let our daughter have a normal childhood, huh?” “I think that gay cruise has sailed,” Cam replies. But what, exactly, is abnormal about Lily’s life right now, aside from her superhuman adorableness? Is it that Cam secretly won’t allow her to walk or crawl or touch the floor of their home? Against Mitch’s wishes (although, what these days isn’t against Mitch’s wishes?), Cam books Lily a starring role in a local kids’ furniture-store commercial, bumbles around the set, eats a fake grape, and basically makes clear that he’s doing all of this to give her the showbiz childhood he always dreamed of but never got. Lily, as per usual, seems utterly unaffected by the entire situation, even though her precious being actually gets to touch a floor for once, even as Mitch very politely storms onto the set (lots of very polite storming this week) just as filming commences and the commercial reveals itself to be — well, gosh. It was the best bit of the episode and totally caught us off-guard: sailor suits, bad lip-dubbing, uncomfortable Asian stereotypes. Hilarity assured, right?
With Claire sick in bed and all four of his afternoon real-estate showings canceled (apparently the housing market has only now just crashed in whatever bizarro suburb of Los Angeles this is), Phil has no choice but to hang around the house and swat off a sudden-onset masculinity crisis. He makes cookies! He burns his fingers! He breaks a nail! He frets over losing business! This would’ve been a prime opportunity for the show, which was once so concerned with celebrating how American families live now to work in some commentary on gender roles and expectations. Instead, we get Phil moping about being able to provide for his family — which is supposed to be funny because he’s wearing an apron! Like a woman! Phil sublimates his failed manliness into an obsession with an endlessly chirping smoke alarm located in some unfindable place in the house: “Changing the battery in a smoke detector is what they teach you in Man 101, so of course every time I hear that noise all I hear is, ‘Beep beep, you’re not a man! Beep beep, you’re not a man!’” Before fully launching into a rampage, he realizes the chirping is coming from some old smoke alarm Luke (once again criminally underused in this episode) stashed in the attic the year before (“You told me to throw them in the garbage, so I put them in the attic to make a robot”). At least the early round of Phil’s smashfest provided a funny background soundtrack to a conversation between Claire and Haley, in which Claire attempted to convince Haley she needs to date other boys besides Dylan (Haley thinks Claire is trying to feebly express her regrets over marrying Phil). Dylan, by the way, has not been mentioned all season until now, but his sudden reappearance is excused solely by its attendant introduction of the episode’s best running joke, something about a sexy-time dream he keeps having about Claire. Keep the doofus around, Haley. We need him.