Season Finale: Modern Family – “Family Portrait”

“Family Portrait”

May 19th, 2010

Throughout Modern Family’s first season, episodes have been airing out of production order, which isn’t overly surprising: a lot of new comedies air this way based on the strength of certain episodes and to ensure new viewers stick around for a while. However, it means that we’re not really able to read too much into the show’s long term character development, as episodes become interchangeable; I’m not suggesting every sitcom needs to have such character development, but this feels like the kind of show where characters are going to get older over time (especially the kids), and where I’d hope that they would evolve into new stories as this successful show continues into future seasons.

However, I would have been perfectly fine had “Family Portrait” been aired earlier in the season, as I don’t entirely understand why it was chosen as the season finale. Rife with cliches and some fairly broad storylines which show the characters at their most archetypal, and fairly low on great material for the show’s breakout characters, it seems strange that this would be the note the show wanted to leave on when compared with last week’s vacation episode that ended on an earned emotional conclusion. For a show so willing to control the order of things to provide the best possible impact regardless of production order, to place this “okay” episode in this position as opposed to last week’s really strong outing either indicates they don’t really care what not they leave on or that they have a very different conception of what works about this from my own.

Considering that I’ve been sort of at arm’s length with the show all season, it’s probably the latter.

I want to credit the show for a single fantastic scene in “Family Portrait”: the juxtaposition of Cam singing “Ave Maria” with Mitchell destroying their home after a pigeon flew into it was just wonderfully done, and the slow motion enhanced an already great performance from Jesse Tyler Ferguson. However, what did that storyline really achieve? It didn’t feel like it was tapping into the character beyond his apparent fear of birds, and the end result of the storyline was simply a justification for the family picture being in Jay’s backyard rather than inside their house. It’s a great sight gag, and I laughed quite a bit, but was I laughing for any particular reason, and did the show do anything to make that laughter mean anything?

While the Hawaii episodes seemed to give each character their moments, or look to investigate their relationships in meaningful ways, “Family Portrait” just created a lot of conflict which then all got washed away with a silly mud fight reminiscent of too many other endings the show has done (see: everyone getting thrown in the pool). Throw in a saccharine voiceover (albeit nicely undercut by Luke interjecting to indicate he’ll focus on the Elvis material), and you have the sort of ending that feels perfunctory rather than earned. I want the show’s character to feel like they’ve actually confronted some of their issues and grown as human beings, not watching as they all make silly mistakes and nearly ruin a picture before accepting the wacky modernity of their family and preparing for a “Before” portion of a laundry detergent commercial.

I think the problem is that the finale seemed to focus in strange directions: I know that Claire and Mitchell are the actual children within the central family, which means that they (along with Jay) are the centerpiece of the show, but the series has seemed far more interested in Phil, Cameron and Manny throughout the first season, so it seemed strange to suddenly shift to Claire and Mitchell as comic foils rather than straight players. I think Julie Bowen can be funny, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson had some funny moments, but did either Claire or Mitchell do anything particularly humorous? You could argue that Claire’s insistence on perfection was occasionally funny, but was it nearly as funny as the show’s other comic potential? I know it’s an ensemble, and I know you could effectively name her as the female lead, but she’s best used as the heart (or the common sense) of the family, and she never got to play that role here. Meanwhile, Manny and Cameron (who I’d argue are the heart of the show if not the family) were mostly sidelined, left to a couple of small gags that didn’t necessarily hit as strong as earlier material.

“Hawaii” worked because the conflicts felt real, and because the responses to them felt measured and realistic – the situations were still funny, and there were still some broad storylines, but there as a sense of self-awareness to everyone’s actions, an ease which kept the show from feeling too manic. Here, it felt like conflict was created solely to be “resolved” by the dirt fight, and I’m still not sure why Gloria was picking a fight with Jay – the eponymous portrait never seemed like it was so important (beyond Claire’s micro-managing) to create any sort of high-stakes, and having no real reason to explain any of the behaviour in question made for an episode filled with tangential bits of stories rather than an actual narrative. Some of the show’s episodes have been clever and have come together in ways which feel broad while remaining connective (like “Fizbo,” for example), but this one never had any of that novelty, nor did it really achieve any big laughs.

I don’t think it was a terrible episode of the show by any means, but it didn’t feel like a particularly good one, and considering they had a location-set episode airing just last week I’m not sure why they would choose to end on this note. Last week had a laidback vibe and an emotional conclusion that brought the family together without delving too far into cliche, so I’m struggling to understand the logic of this particular decision, just as I struggled to understand some of the show’s logic along the way. I’ve always felt like the show sabotages itself more often than not, making decisions which make it feel more manufactured than I’d think they’d want it to feel. I really like some of these characters, and every now and then they hit one out of the park, but most of the time they aren’t willing to push a double into a triple, and sometimes they just hit a ground rule double without wanting to push for that extra power to put it over the fence without the bounce. Modern Family isn’t being held back by its talent but rather by its lack of ambition, and it’s frustrating that a week after pushing itself with great success they deliver an episode which settles for average and doesn’t apologize for it.

Cultural Observations

  • I know I should have used a basketball metaphor instead of a baseball one, considering the Lakers game and all, but Kobe Bryant’s cameo was so pointless that I didn’t really remember it until I started the bullet points.
  • There wasn’t nearly enough Luke in the episode, but he was unsurprisingly one of the best parts of the episode: Phil getting Luke to “Hurt Locker” their way out of the situation as their secret weapon, and Luke getting unwrapped, were the parts of the final scenes which really worked.
  • Manny’s behaviour is occasionally a bit creepy coming from a 10-year old, but his attempts to mack on Alex should the Kiss Cam focus on them is just wrong, and not nearly as funny as they thought it was.
  • I didn’t think Phil’s dilemma (of kissing Gloria) ever really clicked, but I really liked his “Where’s Waldo” corrections at the start of the episode – I like seeing Phil get one over on Claire on occasion, so there was some nice repartee there.
  • My only theory about why this episode was considered finale worthy? The broken stair continuity. However, I don’t think that was nearly enough.
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3 Comments

Filed under Modern Family

3 responses to “Season Finale: Modern Family – “Family Portrait”

  1. renton

    I think the simple reason this episode was chosen as the finale was so they could promote Kobe Bryant’s brief appearance — and tie it to the NBA playoffs.

  2. Ian

    I think you are spot-on in your observation of the broken stair as a throughline as a possible reason for this episode’s place as the season finale. I was made even more aware of the stair gag throughout this first season after reading the Modern Family article in New York Magazine this week. But you’re absolutely right in that it was not reason enough to conclude with this mediocre of an episode.

  3. par3182

    That Ave Maria/pigeon scene was the low point of the season, reducing Mitchell to a screaming queen (plus it seemed to go on forever). The rest of this episode seemed flat and unfunny and I agree that ‘Hawaii’ would’ve been a better season end.

    The other possible reason for this being a finale? The portrait flipping in the opening credits.

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