“The Bicycle Thief”
September 30th, 2009
I, like every other TV critic on the planet, liked Modern Family. I even loved parts of it. But I was one of the few who expressed some trepidation at what the show was going to look like in the weeks ahead. So much of the episode was derived from the amazing final scene, one where everything came together in a bit of epic coming timing, and I wasn’t sure how the individual stories could live up to that moment.
For me, “The Bicycle Thief” leans heavily on two elements that made the pilot as strong as it was, focusing on Ty Burrell’s cool dad Phil and Cam’s dramatic side. I love what it does with Phil in this episode, and very much enjoy Cameron and Mitchell’s side of things, but I felt as if Jay and Gloria’s side of the equation was lacking a bit.
And it matters because here they choose to let the different families stand on their own for an episode, connecting them together with a general theme (a theme of fatherhood, in particular) as opposed to letting them mingle between one another. It makes for an episode that is somewhat less zany and surprising, but in at least 2/3 of its content it’s just as strong as it was last week.
It’s clear that after the show went to pilot, they realized how good Phil was as a character, and how great Ty Burrell was in that pilot. He’s given the major storyline here, including the title, as he tries to teach his son a lesson. If there is anything that Arrested Development taught us, it’s that lessons are always an amazing idea, and in this storyline we get the sort of out of control quality that was distinctive about Phil and Claire’s storyline in the pilot. It manages to combine Phil’s flirtation with the neighbour (we learned in the pilot he needs to learn some boundaries, like with Gloria), and his desire to take Claire’s parenting advice into account with Luke’s bike and weave together an elaborate series of events that ends up with three bikes, two or three different lies, and a whole lot of comedy.
We don’t get to see much of Julie Bowen’s Claire, or any of the other two children, so it’s really “The Phil Show.” That’s great for us, as his elaborate bike stealing storyline is driven all along by how great Burrell is. I was thinking initially that he’d have to submit as a supporting actor for the Emmys, but he really gave a lead performance in this episode. I think that O’Neill will be given that distinction in the end based on his seniority, but Burrell is a far more interesting presence, and I loved every bit of both physical comedy (running away from the kids, hugging Claire to try to keep her from seeing Desiree) and the mockumentary bits.
The episode is similarly strong with Mitchell and Cameron, as we start to see patterns emerge. Phil and Claire offer the spinning out of control sort of comedy, while Mitchell and Cameron offers situational comedy based on their unique parenting situation. I thought the instinct here was really strong, with Mitchell’s paranoia forcing Cameron to resisting turning daycare into “The Cam Show.” The inherent conflict between the silliness and fun of the play group (where theatricality is, in fact, desired by all involved) made Cam’s struggle all that much more entertaining, whether it’s his attempt at straight dancing or his look of complete horror at the mother who dislikes Meryl Streep. When he finally gets to slap his own ass and let loose once they realize that they aren’t actually the only gay couple (continuing a theme we saw in their introductory scene in the pilot), it’s a fun moment of theatricality. Combine with Mitchell’s attempt to make Lily seem like a prodigy and then discovering it was all being taped, we see that these two offer awkward comedy where they understand that it’s awkward (as opposed to Phil, who isn’t quite aware).
What I don’t think the show has quite figured out yet is Jay and Gloria, and in particular Manny. The pilot let Jay be the curmudgeon, and Gloria the foreign stereotype, which left Manny to charm us to death with his love for Feldman comma Brenda. This week, the show really treats this like a dramatic storyline, the heart of the fatherhood theme and a chance for Ed O’Neill to show his emotional side. There wasn’t much humour in the construction of the ceiling fan, and Manny’s worship of his father and subsequent disappointment was a note of sadness that wasn’t there in the pilot (where his idealism with Brenda was more cute than it was tragic). The ending, with Jay and Gloria skipping Napa Valley in order to take him to Disneyland, was really charming and I thought did offer a good counterpoint to the other storylines. However, it wasn’t very funny in the process, if I’m being honest: Gloria’s lines, in particular, weren’t funny if her ethnicity wasn’t taken into account, so I was expecting something more there.
My one concern is that this is as complex as the show might get, at least when the families are divided. They’ve very much decided what kind of comedy each group is going to offer, and when they’re separated the show runs the chance of being formulaic. Of course, let’s remember that all elements of this formula are well handled, and that I laughed a lot and was affected by the emotional side of things. I just hope that the spontaneity and chaos of the finale of the pilot will return more than every once in a while. I was kind of surprised to see them deliver a straightforward episode right off the bat, to be honest, so I’ll be curious to see how things change in the weeks ahead.
- I did love one line in the Ed O’Neill storyline: “he keeps us grounded…like fog at an airport.” Actually, I also loved, “was the bear in the passenger seat?”
- Loved Phil checking to see if Claire was nearby before shoving it in her face with “that’s too damn bad!” So much fun.
- “Classic Me, right?” is officially my new catchphrase.
- I think The Office still has the best Sophie’s Choice joke, but Cameron’s emotional over Sophie’s Choice now that they have Lily was a funny way to end the episode. Still, “Meryl Streep could play Batman” is an excellent point should Christian Bale at some point be done with Christopher Nolan professionally.