October 21st, 2009
Modern Family has thus far proven itself to be an extremely well-executed sitcom, but one that isn’t really doing anything particularly innovative. Its pilot established a really fun integrated family setting, with three separate families having their own idiosyncrasies and then exploding into all-out chaos when they come together. Episodes like last week’s indicated that the show is strong enough to be able to bring in a guest star and not have it disrupt the show’s rhythms.
However, “Coal Digger” is the kind of episode that demonstrates one of the show’s key problems, in that the elements that make the show stand out (like Ty Burrell’s hilarious Phil, or Eric Stonestreet’s loveable Cam) are being used in the same fashion each and every week to the point of growing repetitive. It isn’t that the episode doesn’t try anything new, placing Gloria and Claire at each other’s throats over both recent and long-standing issues, but rather that the way the episode is structured feels too rote at this stage, and the characters that usually elevate that material are beginning to feel not so much tired as perhaps a bit overexposed.
I’m not suggesting that the show is falling apart of anything, but after a week where it really branched out into something new for it to return to the same old structure feels a bit out of place.
I want to make clear that this episode isn’t some sort of failure. Gloria and Claire’s feud allowed us to see a bit more of Julie Bowen for the second straight week, and the mediation between Manny and Luke was an intriguing idea that made sense considering how different the characters are. I also continue to like the little touches, like Haley and Phil both failing to be able to lie to Claire (and way too quickly). But where the episode struggles is in that the storyline itself felt less designed to tell a particular story and more designed to be the Phil and Cam show.
Now, as Cameron pointed out, I am in fact a fan of the Cam Show (who isn’t, after all), but there are points where I want the show to do something more with each character than what the pilot decided they should be. And, to be honest, I think we got that with Cameron here. I liked the way that Cameron and Jay were interacting in this episode, which was one element which felt distinctly new. However, at the same time, everything else was kind of the same as it was before: the storyline of Mitchell being more elitist was a play on the Costco story, and his various asides were all in the same tradition as the ones from the pilot and subsequent episodes. I love this character, and thought the Jay storyline added a new element to it, but it still risked feeling reductive.
And, I think that for Phil this was the first time where I experienced some diminishing returns. It’s one thing when a moment is legitimately clever, like Phil’s delay from responding to Gloria’s question about whether she should take off her dress, but the “Phil mishears Gloria and makes inappropriate physical contact” is the kind of thing that risks becoming repetitive. I really like Jay’s character, and him drowning in Gloria’s underwear and serving as a terrible peer mediator is a strong use of the character. However, the show is really relying on him to play these roles, and the more this happens the more it risks falling into patterns which are too familiar.
I want to see them have these characters, and others, in some new dynamics. Right now, the show has isolated Cameron and Mitchell in their own storylines (the two of them, together, having never really been allowed into an A-story as a unit), and while I think there’s plenty of interesting dynamics that the show has played with (like Manny/Claire, or Jay/Phil), an episode like this screams “pilot” in a way that doesn’t quite work. It’s not unfunny, it’s not even below average: it’s just establishing tropes that worked in the pilot, and will probably work for a while, but which don’t feel as uniquely well-executed as what the show has been doing to this point.
It’s not some sort of disastrous fallback for the series, or anything, but since “it was funny” isn’t exactly a review, just some food for thought.
- I complain about the show isolating Cameron and Mitchell, but it really is a great dynamic: I loved “we were picklers,” and Lily as the Hamburgler, and Cameron’s “Am I straight,” and everything else. I just also want them to try out some new dynamics with those particular characters (Mitchell having his family connection, but Cameron missing out outside of this week’s interaction with Jay (which was probably better for people who know U.S. College Football better than I).
- Also, I think “They wear ascots?!” was my favourite Mitchell/Cameron line.
- The “Coal Digger” misunderstanding was kind of clever, although I actually thought that it could exist as some sort of sexual slur.
- I think some of my issues with the episode was its ending, an all too happy and not all that funny “everyone jump in the pool!” moment that seemed like a lame pilot conclusion instead of something legitimately humorous. I did, however, enjoy “Cam-on-ball!”