Modern Family, “Two Monkeys and a Panda”

I haven’t written about Modern Family in a while because I felt like I was picking nits. I am fully confident in my opinion that the series has not been as strong here in the second season as it was in its pretty-awesome first, but things aren’t so bad on a week-to-week basis, it hasn’t been worth it to discuss that. I still watch Modern Family every single week and most of the time, I like it. I just wish that I loved it as I did in season one.

Last night’s episode, “Two Monkeys and a Panda” is an episode I can love. So much.

Apart from the hackneyed voice-over endings — something the series has smartly moved away from in the last dozen episodes or so — is the lack of subtlety in the jokes and gags. In the first season, Modern Family wasn’t all about wacky sitcom-y plots. It had really smart, witty and sharp writing that usually made up for the mediocre endings. The characters were generally smart people who sometimes said and did goofy stuff that we could laugh at. This season, the comedy has become more broad and especially more physical, which makes the characters look dumber and duller. When you combine that wacky brand of humor with the weak endings, Modern Family becomes a less advanced version of itself and you know, that’s just unfortunate.

Thankfully, “Two Monkeys” avoids any of that broad, wacky kind of humor and sticks with the wittier verbal play that the actors handle so well. Nobody takes a fall or puts on a stupid costume or runs through something, it’s mostly just the three spouses talking about their feelings and problems in an intelligent, funny and ultimately, heartfelt way. This is the kind of series I signed up for when I watched that fantastic pilot episode and I wish it was around more often.

Cam and Mitchell’s story was particularly effective here, as the two of them fought over Mitch’s terribly flawed decision to give Lily Cam’s last name as her middle name instead of the hyphenated agreement they had planned. The thread could have been played for major, broad laughs — which is always the danger when Cam gets upset — but I really enjoyed how the episode reigned it back in and let Mitch’s decision be entrenched in his fears about where a new baby would take their relationship. The two of them are generally happy and we haven’t seen any real strain on the relationship since they picked up Lily in the pilot — that’s more a by-product of the sitcom form than anything else, though — but I thought this was a tremendous execution nonetheless. It was true to Cam and Mitch as characters in that even though we didn’t see their relationship before Lily, it’s totally fair to assume that Cam was flipping out all the time and Mitch was getting both annoyed and scared about what that meant for the future. From everything we’ve seen from them in the previous 40 episodes, this is exactly how I’d assume they would react.

And as my girlfriend pointed out to me, this story also did a good job of reminding the audience that this a series about 21st century families, something it often forgets. Gay couples trying to figure out the legalities in naming and how that is impacted by their actual relationship and the discussion of how to deal with adoption are all real issues that people in today’s world are dealing with on a regular basis. It’s a small little detail, but it is nice to be reminded of what the series’ original conception involved apart from the underlining wacky sitcom tropes that have made this season so disappointing.

The Dunphy and Pritchett stories were less effective, but only in comparison to really one of the best things this series has ever done. Sitting Ty Burrell down at a spa and putting creams on his face is one of those easy bits this series tries to use too often, but because it was followed up with a nice little beat about Phil’s annoying insistence to “fix” all Claire’s problems, it worked. If there’s one thing this season has been good at, it’s been the comedic development of Julie Bowen’s Claire, but her minor emotional breakdown was a nice reminder of the good things the actress can do when she’s not asked to be a crazy shrill.

Similarly, I thought Jay and Gloria’s discussion of what do when he dies was pretty well done. The thread has a nice rhythm that started in a place of more overt humor with the creepy people at the mausoleum, but transitioned nicely into a fairly heartfelt story about what happens when you’re an old man married to a much younger woman. I would much prefer that the series plays this beats between Jay and Gloria than the writer’s constant insistence on pulling all the laughs from her nationality and accent, so I was very happy with the story. And of course, any story that ends with Ed O’Neill cackling on the couch like an evil mastermind is a good one in my book.

It’s unfortunate that Modern Family can’t be this good every week, but even if next week’s episode blows at least I can remember “Two Monkeys and a Panda” fondly.

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