Season Premiere: Modern Family – “The Old Wagon”

“The Old Wagon”

September 22nd, 2010

“Time marches on, huh?”

The central storyline in “The Old Wagon” is about nostalgia: the Dunphy family keeps their station wagon around not because it’s functional, but because it holds treasured memories of their past that they are unwilling to let go.

My growing issue with Modern Family is that it doesn’t feel like a beat up station wagon with character; instead, it feels like one of those models which takes people’s nostalgia for classic cars and then crams it into a shiny new package. There are elements here that I enjoy as a viewer, and elements that are unquestionably well-executed, and yet the ultimate package feels as if it has been manufactured to create that response instead of earning it.

In an episode which emphasized the importance of reflecting on how fast things change in our lives, Modern Family demonstrated that absolutely nothing has changed since the show sprang to life a year ago. “The Old Wagon” is not even close to being a bad episode of television, but it fits so comfortably into the show’s patterns that it honestly frustrates me more than a legitimately bad episode would.

At least then there might have been a single moment of growth.

Shows which don’t make adjustments between their first and second season run the risk of coming off as cocky – by simply maintaining the status quo, a show like Modern Family sends a message that last season was “perfect.” I’m aware that this is a simplification, but it’s a television fact of life, and it only reinforces some of my issues with the show from last season. For better or for worse, the show’s earnestness became a liability for me last year, and as a result the complete lack of any sort of course correction is inevitably going to bug me more than someone who loved the show last season. You may argue that it is unfair to criticize a highly successful show for not radically changing itself, but speaking only creatively Modern Family was a flawed show with a bad case of complacency last season, and for it to come back with no adjustment at all just seems conceited to me.

It doesn’t help that everyone fits comfortably into their previous roles: Manny is still a ladies man, Phil is still a bumbling idiot with a heart of gold, and Mitchell and Cameron are still grappling with their masculinity. This was the prototypical episode of Modern Family, and as someone who questions the schematics on that prototype it seemed like a really ineffectual opening. It preyed on viewers’ nostalgia, wanting to remind us how much we missed Phil being a bumbling idiot with a heart of gold, and how much we love seeing Manny woo the ladies. And even though I technically like those things, and would be entirely open to seeing them on occasion, that they chose to open purely with those elements and nothing to indicate that the show is evolving is the sort of decision which feels like they’re throwing in the towel on pushing the envelope.

I am aware that the show has never been about pushing the envelope, but why couldn’t it start? Or, more accurately, why couldn’t it pick up on some of its more subversive elements instead of leaning heavily on a saccharine story about the value of family? Episodes like “Fizbo” managed to be innovative while still coming to similar conclusions, so this sort of generic structure is not necessary to achieve the results they are looking for. Separately, the three storylines would have worked if they were surrounded by an episode that was willing to take a risk: the dashboard camera footage from the Dunphys’ station wagon was some great comedy, Gloria and Manny stories always work fairly well, and putting Jay with Mitchell and Cameron led to some nice scenes. However, when the three stories are brought together, it feels like a simulacrum of Modern Family instead of an episode of Modern Family.

I understand why people love this show, and thus I understand why episode was chosen as the premiere (as they dug a few episodes into the production order to put it here). It’s there to reassure viewers that the show they loved is back, there to convince them that turning the channel to Criminal Minds is a mistake because they’re about to relive last season all over again. And if this were a show that I had no issues with in the past, I would probably let it slide: I’d say that this episode was for the people who were on the fence, and then next week it will get back to normal.

However, my lingering doubts about the series after last season reared their ugly heads here, as this felt uncomfortably familiar and even ended with a montage of the character set to a treacly voiceover from the one of the characters (Phil). I may have laughed, and I may have even enjoyed parts of the half hour considerably, but in the end the show has repackaged itself in a way which convinces me that the show I want to watch likely isn’t going to emerge anytime soon.

And I don’t need a time machine to figure that out.

Cultural Observations

  • As Linda Holmes noted on Twitter, hearing Sofia Vergara pronounce Shia LaBeouf was an unexpected delight.
  • Note the callback to Mitchell’s over-the-top finale moment with the bird as he gets trapped in the castle with one.
  • Liked the small moment at the end with Luke looking for the sunshine in his bottle – his character remains a highlight.
  • I know that Phil is supposed to be bumbling, but why did he continue to hang onto the hood of the car instead of going into the door? He stayed too stupid for too long in that sequence, shock or no shock.
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5 Comments

Filed under Modern Family

5 responses to “Season Premiere: Modern Family – “The Old Wagon”

  1. evie

    Wow, harsh. I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, but then I’m not looking for it to be a completely different show. I do wish they’d tone down the “message” (change is hard? Really?), but I love the characters. Seeing them being themselves is fun.

    I didn’t save the episode on my dvr, though, which I did for most of last year’s episodes. This one was kind of on par with the driving lessons epi from last season. Love it because I love the show, but it won’t be in my highlight reel.

  2. Pat

    While I agree that this was an average episode of Modern Family, I find your review to be inconsistent with your review of Cougar Town. Your major complaint about the premiere of Modern Family is that is sitting on it’s laurels. Perhaps, but I do not seen any dramatic changes in Cougar Town in last night’s episode. I think Cougar Town is a pefectly fine comedy. It is more old school than ground breaking. The characters are not particularly deep, but are generally appealling (except for Grayson, can he go to Vietnam with Greg?) and I ussually laugh out loud at least once in an episode. I also do not see how the season two premeire showed any growth over the season finale of season one. The character dynamics are the same, the quirks of each character are the same, in all there was nothing to differentiate this episode from one in season one. So how is that different from Modern Family’s premiere? Essentially, I think boils down to a question of preference. If you like Cougar town better than Modern Family, that is fine. But at least use the same metrics when critiqueing the shows.

    • I see the distinction as follows (and feel as if this distinction is clear between the two reviews):

      1) I DO like Cougar Town better, and I do not in any capacity apologize for that – I feel Modern Family’s first season was inconsistent and flawed, and so to see a lack of change bothers me more than Cougar Town (which was the opposite of those two things once it settled into its end of season groove). However…

      2) The other issue is that where Modern Family left things was very different from Cougar Town: while the former continues to operate in a universe without time where there is no sense of character progression, the latter had Travis leaving and Jules and Grayson dating. The premiere may not have substantially changed any of those elements, but it carried over the ramifications of that complexity with Bobby’s issues, Travis and Laurie’s last hurrah, and even Jules’ general anxieties needing some sort of therapist. The episode may not have offered substantial change, but it contextualized its consistency with last season in relation to ongoing storylines.

      I don’t need radical change to buy into a season premiere, but I do need some sort of sense of acknowledgement. That, sadly, was lacking here beyond the nostalgic gestures to last season (for me).

  3. I think maybe this just isn’t your kind of show.

  4. bob

    Modern Family would be 100x better without those montage “lesson” parts at the end. Whenever Phil’s voice get’s serious near the end and the music starts playing, I switch it off.

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