October 14th, 2009
This is going to see like a really weird connection, but one of the things that I found really interesting about The CW’s Privileged was how quickly it dealt with its built-in back story. The show was dealing with an estranged mother and a distant father in its central protagonist, and it got both out of the way quickly…in fact, perhaps too quickly. The show never quite felt as purposeful when it moved past those interesting dynamics, and while they were important parts of its early identity it seemed like they could have been burned off more slowly to heighten their impact.
However, Modern Family makes an enormously compelling argument for getting back story out of the way, or at the very least the value of back story in the early stages of a sitcom’s development in particular. While the show is essentially checking off a list of recurring character we’ve yet to see (Benjamin Bratt was just cast as Gloria’s ex, for example), the seamless integration of Long into the cast only brings out more of our characters, and the way the episode depicts a past “Incident” is a hilarious piece of back story that does nothing to diminish what could be introduced with time. On a drama, a character like Long evokes the same kind of emotions each time she returns, and the show can only go there so many times. On a sitcom, however, as long as things remain funny and as long as a diverse set of characters are involved, you can keep on bringing her back with minimal loss of comic value.
And considering where this episode starts off at on that front, DeDe could be a funny recurring player on the show for seasons to come.
The flashback to Jay and Gloria’s wedding was the kind of piece of comedy that Steve Levitan must have had a lot of fun writing. The idea of having Shelley Long (who is, of course, best known for her role on Cheers) giving a drunken wedding toast and thrashing around in her sons’ arms as she is carried out of the reception. It’s a rare scenario where something ominously introduced as “The Incident,” and portended by a bird flying into a window and Claire’s children suddenly going from patty-cake to a fistfight, lives up to the hype: told through almost all of the characters, including Haley and Luke getting their first individual talking heads in the documentary style, it was legitimately hysterical and helped set into motion the events that followed.
What worked about the storyline was that DeDe’s arrival told us more about the regular characters than it did about her, primarily because the wedding video told us everything we needed to. She’s a tornado of a human being, but for her children she is a particular sort of evil. I love Claire and Mitchell’s conversation when they start falling into Mommy/Daddy, and you start to realize how easily these two boil down to particular roles. We even saw in the pilot how Mitchell takes after DeDe when it comes to criticizing Claire, and it’s clear that Claire gets along better with their father than Mitchell does. But the episode turned this simple fact into a comic highlight by having Mitchell become defensive about being his mother’s errand boy (which he totally is), and had Claire forced to confront her own parenting strategy in the wake of her mother’s hyper-criticism of her apparent hypocrisies.
This is to say nothing of the comedy that was coming from Long herself, and from those not directly related to her. I loved Cameron and Mitchell’s reactions, in particular Cameron who remains a comic highlight both when with Mitchell (pointing out that he had been the one who had suggested DeDe attending the wedding was a terrible idea) and alone (the fish who carries its babies in its mouth story was pure gold), and Long was very much in control of the character’s balance of tai-chi serenity and pure insanity. She got to show a lot of range in the episode, nailing the drunk toast brilliantly and then selling her newfound happiness with Chaz, a Canadian logger (of blood data), before eventually devolving into insanity the second Gloria becomes that much more awesome for forgiving her.
The show continues to rely on the big moments, here, DeDe and Gloria’s catfight, but they continue to be so absolutely hilarious that I can’t really complain about it. Phil grabbing onto Gloria (“I’ve got Gloria!”) was maybe the most I laughed all night, and Dylan’s faux-resolution to the conflict (and then ruining it with his desire to do Haley) was a whole lot of fun in the way the show has been since the beginning. The show is sometimes best for its throwaway lines, like the idea that Gloria’s first wedding was highlighted by drug dealers assassinating the judge (and yet was still better than her wedding to Jay) or Jay insinuating that her own mother waking from the grave would be less frightening than DeDe’s return. But then it pulls out all of the stops with broader comedy, and that turns into its highlight, only to have a smaller moment (everyone having Dylan’s song stuck in their head) make us laugh in a different way all over again.
It proves that this is a show that could introduce every character in its back story and yet keep working with just its normal cast: the episode largely relied on DeDe, but Manny got his own little storyline and Haley got to come more into her own as well. Guest stars on a comedy can often dominate the episode, but here I thought that we got a good balance of character moments both created by and unrelated to DeDe. In future weeks we’ll be seeing Elizabeth Banks and Edward Norton, and I really can’t wait to see what they bring out of these characters.
- ABC has released a music video of Dylan’s “In the Moonlight (Do Me),” which is clever but I’ll be honest: I think that The Office’s awkward sex song was better.
- Shelley Long is pretty much guaranteed an Emmy nomination for this role, and she’ll probably win considering her career goodwill.
- Cameron’s best line of the episode was without question “So to recap, I gave her diamond earrings and she gave me a hint.” The show hasn’t entirely made clear whether Cameron was ever skinny (the pilot indicated the recent weight fain was a baby weight thing). Mitchell’s “Take a note, bitches” kept him in the game as well.
- Phil remains a comic highlight, here with almost no help from DeDe: his malt shop persona with Haley was funny enough, but I also loved “Let’s go back to the beginning…what’s wrong with Spencer’s arm?”