As the end of Modern Family’s second run creeps ever closer, we’re keeping our chin up, trying to look for bright spots in a show we’ve felt decidedly bleh about all season. This week we looked for bright spots, dammit, and we found them! Unfortunately, the show crowded some of the funny story lines with ones that felt tacked-on, like a bad fake beard in a school play that you really want to watch but can’t because two old dudes are fighting outside the gymnatorium.
Two big developments this week. First, Phil debuts his new realty ad campaign (“I can’t be satisfied until you’re satisfied!”) and wraps it around the minivan. Second, Haley’s SAT scores are in and, much to Alex’s chagrin, they are stunningly average. So it’s “medium-five!’s” all around for the proud parents and silent fumes for Lesbian Sandals, at least until Haley shrugs that maybe she doesn’t even want to go to college. (Great little flash of comic timing by Sarah Hyland after she announces that, then chirps, “Bye!” and flounces out of the room.) Claire and Haley spend the afternoon running errands in the minivan, with Claire talking up all the wonders of college: how independent Haley will be, how school isn’t that hard, how all the boys will think she’s cute because she’s so cute, how it’ll be the best time of her life, how her whole future will be laid out in front of her. And then of course because nothing in Claire’s life can not end up being directly about Claire, her focus quickly shifts to how all of her best years are behind her.
Luckily, Claire’s unknowingly driving around in a car that says “I can’t be satisfied!” on one side, and Claire’s smiling face, an “I can make your dreams come true!” slogan, and Haley’s sassy dancing self on the other. Needless to say, Claire and Haley are getting lots of honks. Meanwhile, Phil has realized his minivan ad may be inappropriate (his confused phone call with a potential “client” was Ty Burell’s best moment this week) and tries to conceal Claire and Haley’s temporary escort-service status from Claire and Haley, bailing on Luke’s school play to attempt to chip the decal off by hand. But of course it’s no use and the women eventually find out. Haley is mortified and Claire is, too, at first. Then Phil mentions that most of the calls he got were for “the hot blonde.” And so it seems Claire can be satisfied, and that in fact the fears raised by her talk with Haley were less of the existential, meaning-of-life sort and more of the “Oh noes, I may very well no longer be hot” variety, ones easily assuaged by dozens of calls to her husband’s cell phone of horny motorists mistaking her for a very bougie prostitute.
For a while, Manny’s precocious dabblings in romance seemed set to be one of the show’s recurring gags, and while we’re bummed that seems to have tapered off throughout this season, we’re also glad it’s been saved from death-by-overdoing. Still, we could have had a bigger taste of the story line last night: Manny waiting forlornly by the phone for a girl named Emma to call him? Yes! Manny approaching Emma at play practice to confess his feelings? Go get her, lil dude! Manny’s efforts being thwarted by Luke pretending to be a T-Rex/droid hybrid and generally cracking wise and making Emma giggle and blow Manny off and seeming to build toward a likely-hilarious-and-adorable Manny-Luke duel? OMG! Instead, hey, here’s Jay’s brother whom we’ve never heard of before! He’s balding and kinda crusty and harsh like Jay but his accent seems to indicate he was raised in an entirely different geographical region, and we’re supposed to care about him, even though his and Jay’s relationship consists entirely of them verbally and physically sparring and stealing each other’s nice whiskey and booby-trapping armchairs for one another. This baffles Gloria into saying a lot of Colombian names in rapid succession, which is the one funny thing Sofia Veraga gets to do all episode, which is a shame. Then Jay finds out that his brother has prostate cancer and things get serious! Kind of. They go see Manny and Luke’s school play but wind up running out during the show to argue about their deeply repressed man-feelings in the parking lot. Normally we’d be all about Jay revealing his squishy inner layers, but the whole time the guys are out hashing out their brotherly love, we were way more interested in what was going on back in the gym.
And what was going on in the gym? Nothing less than a terrific catastrophe of a middle school musical directed by Cameron, whose well-noted theatrical proclivities somehow had to wait a season and a half to be put to decent use. At long last, though, here we are. Subbing in for a teacher that he may or may not have virally sabotaged, he’s revamped the entire show, written songs (“From Zimbabwe to Algeria / Come on let me hear-y-a / These are the countries, these are the countries,” etc.), choreographed stage numbers. (“Their show lacked focus. I gave it a theme.” “See, he focused it by making it about the world.”) There’s an attempted coup at dress rehearsal, but Cam will not be deterred (and he gets to squall about how the kids will “never forget how I Sondheimized them!”). We got only maddeningly brief snippets of the actual performance, but we’re pretty sure that letting the plot linger on the kids onstage for more than 30 seconds at a time would’ve resulted in one of the funniest episodes in the show’s history. (Alternately, if your parents ever videotaped one of your elementary-school productions, you could just watch that.) Luke got stuck in a harness and we got a couple good lines from it (“I can feel my heartbeat in my eyeballs!” he said, not for the first time channeling Ralph Wiggum), but every time a new sceneful of kids stomped onstage in “native dress” and started singing comically reductive songs about various countries of the world as set pieces collapsed and effects malfunctioned all around them, the scene would cut away to something less funny. Like Jay and his brother. Dudes, sorry about your prostate and stunted emotional growth and all that, but can you please wait until these white, 11-year-olds finish singing about China? Because we just heard some line about Jackie Chan and frankly we’re more interested in how that pans out than your semi-heartwarming bro-down. Glad we at least got to see the big “WE LOVE THE F WORD” finale, but we’re still holding out for some redemptive season-two DVD extras.