Two weeks after what we’re still pretty certain was the best episode of the show’s second season, Modern Family returns with Mother’s Day — a prime opportunity to celebrate the ladies who happen to be our most and least favorite characters on the show, Gloria and Claire. But kinda like that time you got your own mom a bathrobe when she already had a bathrobe but you didn’t realize it, we wound up with more of the same junk we never wanted in the first place: meager laughs, loads of cheese, and weird feelings about gay people and ladies!
The opening scene, at least, worked: Phil and the kids gather in the kitchen with Mother’s Day gifts for Claire, and she waltzes in decked out in ridiculous homemade treasures from years past, including a white T-shirt with two wee red handprints right over the boobies. (“It looks like you were felt up by the creepy guy around the corner.” “Ew, why him?” “’Cause he’s got like freakishly tiny hands.”) We then move on to how sometimes moms get really frustrated with their kids and have mean thoughts about them. And also, kids can be little bitches. Which is to say, Claire and Gloria take all the kids out on a special Mother’s Day hike because it’s what they, the mothers, want to do, and the kids complain about the moms and the moms complain about the kids (“He’s persnickety,” Gloria says of Manny, the Let’s Feed the Lady With the Accent a Funny Word moment of the week). Not thrilling, but at least all the griping (“I’m getting dust in my mouth”; “You know, more people have died hiking than in the entire Civil War?”) is against the backdrop of some lovely mountains.
Meanwhile, Phil and Jay are back home cooking a big Mother’s Day feast from one of Jay’s mom’s family recipes for their hungry brood of mountain-whiners. Phil has onion goggles; Jay disapproves. Phil says, “You should get a pair,” and Jay says, “I was gonna suggest the same thing.” See, Jay is such a man, which you can tell because he does not cry over onions or anything else. At least until Phil finds a tiny scrap of paper in Jay’s mom’s cookbook — “Recipe for a perfect mom! By Jay Francis Pritchett, age nine,” he reads gleefully. It actually is pretty adorable, and Phil is giggling like a ninny until he realizes that Jay is crying, and then Jay denies crying, and then Phil — who really is such a sweet guy — tries to comfort him in a series of pretty great semi-hugs that end, of course, with Jay brusquely shrugging him off. As ever, we can’t decide if there were homophobic undertones to Jay’s reaction or if he really just genuinely can’t stand Phil. Anyway, he plays tough until everyone’s gathered for dinner, when Mitch’s recollection about his grandma teaching him not to cut spaghetti leads to Jay reminiscing about a time she chewed out one of his Little League coaches, at which point his long-stuffed-in tears flow forth. And like that great moment earlier this season when Alex and Haley and Phil all started crying in the car because everyone else was crying, everyone else starts crying this time, too, the whiny kids and the whiny moms and the dads all clinging to each other in a big, way-too-sweet mess. Except Mitch, who was over it.
This week’s Mother’s Day episode attempted to address how the guys navigate around traditionally gendered parenting roles, but does so in a bizarrely clumsy way. Between being awoken by Mitch with Mother’s Day breakfast in bed and singled out as an “honorary mom” at Lily’s play group’s Mother’s Day picnic, Cam becomes understandably incensed: “You think of me as Lily’s mother. I’m a wife. I’m a woman!” “Like I would ever treat my partner as a woman,” Mitch scoffs as we flash to a mini-montage of him making Cam-as-wife jokes (working late at the office: “The wife’s not gonna like this,” etc.). “Scratch the balloons, she’s in a mood,” Mitch announces to Lily after delivering the breakfast bombshell — because, you know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned except a gay man who’s being made to feel like he’s a woman. Yes, Modern Family, let’s implicitly dis gay people and ladies in one joke! That’s a wonderful idea. And so here goes Cam, spiraling down into a manliness-proving, football-heaving, whiskey-pounding mess. And here’s Mitch, suddenly trying to be helpful. “We’re a new kind of family — they just don’t have vocabulary for us yet,” he reassures Cam of the play-group ladies, forgetting that, as of that morning, he’d seemed pretty lacking in vocabulary himself.