Little problems left unattended can grow to ten times their original size. It might not be a big deal to start out with, but given some neglect and a dash of passive-aggressiveness, any small thing — tensions, disagreements, secrets — can fester. Same holds true for characters on sitcoms, who, like real people, sometimes have to let the big questions slide just to keep the peace. Last night’s Modern Family raised some big questions, and then let them slide. It wasn’t the funniest episode of late, but its tempered humor was better than some of the season’s earlier flailing attempts. And what we lacked in consistent laughs we got back in some much-needed fleshing out of important relationships.
The episode started out a little slow and picked up steam around the time Claire and Phil’s story line wrapped up. Really, theirs wasn’t much different than the previous episode’s epic squabble and we kinda wish they’d laid a little lower. Alex and Haley are back to bickering pretty hard-core, but their quarreling has nothing on Alex’s attempt to expose Haley’s fake job last week, or Haley’s slam on Alex’s “lesbian sandals” earlier this season. Alex borrows Haley’s new favorite sweater and Haley retaliates: “Fine, I’ll just go put on your favorite T-shirt, the one with the guy from Back to the Future on it.” “That’s Albert Einstein! And it is not nerdy,” Alex replies. They both turn to Claire for succor, who agrees the T-shirt is nerdy, but convinces Haley to let Alex wear the sweater anyway. She’s suddenly super interested in the girls “learning to share” and developing a sisterly relationship where they “can do each others’ hair and share clothes and gossip about boys, like [Claire] used to do with Mitchell.” Needless to say, Claire’s plan fails when Alex rips Haley’s sweater. Claire then sets off on a wild goose chase through the L.A. suburbs to find a replacement. Upon finding one and taking it home, she discovers it still has a security tag, breaks the tag, gets ink all over the replacement, and throws the sweater into Alex’s hands just in time for Haley to come home and blame it all on her dear, dear sister.
Meanwhile, Phil has discovered a pair of about-to-expire spa passes he and Claire bought at a silent auction, which he uses when he can’t find any ladies to pass them off on (though he tried: “I’ll give them to Florence Gunderman at work — her hands look gross ever since she took up the banjo”). After a season and a half of jokes about his tepid masculinity, of course it takes a trip to the spa for Phil to really seem like a dudey-dude. He winds up getting a lesson in communication/empathy/how to manipulate his wife’s irrational needs for his own benefit from the gaggle of sassy ladies also getting manicures. What he’s doing wrong, they tell him, is offering reasonable, logical responses to his wife’s many endless complaints; what he should be doing, duh, is offering up brainless empathy, no matter what. Not sure what’s sadder, that this totally works on Claire, or that it took Phil seventeen-plus years for him to figure out this strategy.
Or should we say, the Tuckers? Because apparently that’s how Mitchell once thought his family would be known, back before he and Cameron officially adopted Lily, and Cam was freaking out about the baby so much that Mitch worried Cam might split, and so deliberately failed to hyphenate their new daughter’s name on her adoption certificate. Cameron discovers this while on a pro-adoption (“clap, clap”) kick, having decided that he needs to destigmatize the word by clapping and cheering every time it’s said in Lily’s presence. (“What did Oprah do now?” “She had a girl on who at 16 found out that she was adopted and felt betrayed and ran away and became a stripper, and not the heart-of-gold kind, the by-the-airport kind.”) Cam is making a scrapbook about Lily’s adoption, planning a book about two monkeys adopting a baby panda (“I think this is a great project and that you are going to finish it,” Mitchell lies), and wearing a wee little rice paddy hat when he sees the birth certificate and realizes Tucker is only Lily’s middle name. He immediately blames Mitch for leaving it out, which seems super-duper harsh, until we learn that Mitch did, in fact, leave it out. Mitch is apologetic, but not quite enough, as his behavior verges close to the unforgiveable here. Like, you were sure enough that your partner was gonna totally ditch you and your newly adopted infant child that you deliberately fudged his name out of a legal document? Hmmm, who knew Mitch was untrusting of his relationship on such a profound, unexplored level? Cam goes off to stew in Lily’s nursery, but Mitch pops in soon enough with an apology and, aw, a first draft of Two Monkeys and a Panda! Which is actually legitimately adorable and acknowledges the fact we were getting concerned the episode might’ve forgotten: that Cam has always been the one most gung-ho about the baby stuff, and Mitch has been scared shitless most of the time Lily has been theirs. But, thumbs-up for shedding this new, if awkwardly cast, light on the guys’ relationship with each other, so long as they follow it up.
We’ve griped a lot about the nearly endless string of hot-wife jokes the show’s writers have fed Jay this season, but behind every one of those cracks we figured there might be something a little darker, a little sadder — hot or not, she’s way younger than him and at some point, we figured, it must’ve crossed his mind that he’d shuffle off this mortal coil well before her much-commented-upon boobies reached their nadir. Would the show ever address this? After we made it through the Jay-and-Manny-talk-religion episode earlier this season without mention of it, and especially after Jay’s appendicitis scare was never really addressed again, we figured the answer was no. But here it is, suddenly and without much to tie it to all the previously established events.
Jay’s just gone to a friend’s funeral and it’s inspired him to get his end-of-life in order. He hauls Gloria to the local mausoleum to speak with some folks with plots to sell. “Ta-da!” Jay proclaims when they come to their spot in the long marble hallway. “Ta-da? What is ta-da?” Gloria fusses. “That’s something you say when you do a flip or when a magician cuts the pretty lady in half, not when you show someone where you want to shove their dead body.” She’s not sold; she wants to be buried in the ground. (“We don’t want our bodies in these drawers where God cannot find us!” “These aren’t like our drawers at home — people can find things in these”). The bit sags until we meet the other couple, the Rutledges, who want to know all of their “neighbors” (the people whose corpses will be next to theirs) and are so pumped about their postmortem arrangement that they call it “moving in.” When they see Gloria, they have concerns: She’s so much younger than Jay, she might get remarried, and then they’ll be sharing eternal tomb space with a stranger.
This gives Jay lots to think about — whether Gloria will remarry, how he’ll compare to the new guy, and what relatively little time he has left with her. He has a great little mini-bar conversation with Manny (playing the role of sympathetic barkeep), who explains just how many men tried to date his mother before she met Jay, and then passes along some information we’ve never heard Gloria tell Jay herself: “Of all the people, my mom fell in love with you. She said she fell in love with you during your first fight. She said she finally met her match.” Cheered by this, Jay finally knows what to do: He gives Gloria an old coffee can, and tells her she can have him cremated, dump him in there, and then do whatever she wants with it, because he doesn’t care where he ends up, so long as it’s with her. It’s weird and sweet and sad, and one of Jay’s best moments — especially when it cuts away to a couch-interview where he’s cackling about torturing Gloria’s next husband with his coffee-can presence on the mantle. And this marks the second week we’ve ended a recap with a mention of Jay’s eventual death. We’ll wait till next season to start a betting pool.