“My Funky Valentine”
“When a Kid Goes Bad”
February 10th, 2010
When a sitcom does a special “holiday” episode, especially in its first season, it’s the ultimate test of the show’s understanding of its character dynamics. For some shows, the show adapts to fit the holiday, while in others the holiday adapts to fit the show: it’s a subtle difference, and both can create entertaining episodes, but I tend to prefer the latter for two key reasons.
The first is that I kind of resent that holidays actually change people. There’s always that sense that holidays are supposed to change people, that in some way the days are “different” than others, but at the core of any real relationship is a bond which should exist whether corporations have decided that people should exchange gifts or eat chocolates on a particular day. So I want a holiday to feel as if it is being filtered through a particular show, rather than that the characters are in some way conforming to the traditions therein.
The second reason is that I find episodes where the show adapts to fit the holiday reinforce the most annoying elements of sitcom structures. Whatever adaptation happens isn’t going to last, and when it’s related to a particular holiday that structure becomes that much more transparent. Yes, every sitcom has episodes where new conflicts arise based on a particular impulse, but when it’s a holiday it feels particularly inorganic.
I make these points as a way to contextualize my (relative) annoyance with tonight’s Modern Family and my enjoyment of tonight’s Cougar Town, despite the fact that it was neither the worst nor best night, respectively, for the two series.
In terms of Modern Family, I thought “My Funky Valentine” worked in the Mitchell/Cameron/Manny story, primarily because we haven’t had a lot of Cameron and Manny together in the past and I enjoy the two characters together. It also was the story that fit perfectly with the holiday in question: neither the show, nor the holiday, had to move for Manny’s romantic streak to fit in with the season, and Cameron and Mitchell’s relationship has always been built around differences of opinion as it relates to all things cute or celebratory. Sure, Mitchell using his legal speech against the opportunistic paramour was a joke that was too choreographed ahead of time for it to be as funny as it could have been if we knew nothing about his speech ahead of time (the “shame” in particular), but the story felt like “Modern Family meets Valentine’s Day” in a very natural way.
The problem was that the Phil and Claire story didn’t feel as natural, and while that was part of the joke (in that they were stretching beyond their usual boring routine) I felt it fit too easily into the show’s pattern of creating conflict that makes things zany and out of control. The story had some funny beats, but it felt too much like a basic sitcom story that one would pitch coming out of Valentine’s Day, like “what can we do with these characters on Valentine’s Day” as opposed to “what would these characters do on Valentine’s Day?” The show has always had this problem, of taking certain situations too far, and the Escalator incident felt like too broad a conclusion: the awkward role play was actually a lot of fun, but I’d rather that had remained the joke and we went without the clear sitcom trappings. Connecting with the Jay/Gloria story was nice, as I do love when the stories connect, but since their story was reductive of the pilot (are we repeating pilot stories already) the episode felt too self-aware of its status as a “Special Valentine’s Episode.”
By comparison, I thought that Cougar Town did a good job of asking itself the question of how Jules and the other characters would respond to Valentine’s Day, and how this group of characters would embrace the romantic element of it all. As a result, “When a Kid Goes Bad” felt like the holiday wasn’t disrupting the show’s rhythm, and instead used as an excuse for Ryan Devlin’s Smith to return as Laurie’s move interest, and to bring Grayson and Jules (both spending their first Valentine’s Day alone since the end of their marriages) closer together without making a huge deal out of it. On the periphery, the episode was content to tell regular stories, like Jules and Bobby tricking Travis into an ideal parenting arrangement on the subject of drinking or Andy contending with guest star Barry Bostwick (who Bill Lawrence worked with on Spin City, of course) as it relates to Laurie’s classiness.
What I like about the show right now is that things don’t become a “big deal” like they do on Modern Family. While there are some ongoing emotional beats, like Laurie’s guilt over sleeping with Grayson, that linger for a while, other instances resist the big dramatic story (like Laurie actually being upset with Andy) in favour of funny ones that remain resonant with moments like Andy standing up for her with Smith’s father regardless of Laurie being fine with it. Ellie can spend the entire episode bossing around Andy and attempting to terrorize Grayson now that he’s entered their coffee circle, but that little moment of her kissing Andy and saying she’s proud of him for standing up to Bostwick still works. The stories here felt like how these characters would response to Valentine’s Day: rather than being overtaken by discussion over the supposed meaning behind the holiday, or forcing characters together, you get Christmas in February and the gang hanging out.
I think there’s a place for comedies like Modern Family, and I thought its take on Valentine’s Day was certainly not its weakest episode. However, it highlighted some of the things that bug me about the show, whereas the way Cougar Town handled the holiday showed its strengths. I’m not a particularly romantic person, so perhaps it’s just that the episode which relied less on that side of the holiday won out in the end, but in the end it’s just a continuation of my growing disengagement with one show and my growing engagement with the other.
- It was interesting to me that the Jay and Gloria story threatened to start investigating their cultural differences more closely, in that the comedian could have proved divisive and really probed the meaning of comedy in each culture. When they just reverted back to the age joke in the pilot, it felt like a complete waste of time, which was unfortunate.
- I may be down on the Phil and Claire story, but both Bowen and Burrell had a lot of fun with it, and I did enjoy everything up until the parade of people they happened to know coming upon them on the escalator.
- That I totally bought Bobby both eating an entire gallon of colesaw and coming up with a pretty clever scheme to deal with Travis reaching the logical, if illegal, drinking age shows how much I enjoy that character. That said, as a vehement opponent to the existence, yet alone ingestion, of Coleslaw, Team Coleslaw is now my mortal enemy.