Modern Family – “En Garde”


“En Garde”

November 4th, 2009

I have mentioned on numerous occasions that I love the interaction that Twitter creates between critics regarding various TV shows, and today was a fine example of that. A single comment from Alan Sepinwall that Parks and Recreation could be the best comedy currently on the air resulted in a wealth of comments, some of which defended Modern Family as, well, the best comedy currently on the air. This resulted in a conversation between myself, Matt Roush and James Poniewozik about ABC’s new hit comedy, in particular the sense of “warmth” that has defined the show in its early episodes.

My argument is that the show has been TOO defined by that warmth to the point where it’s become expected. Part of what made the pilot stand out was that it went from a traditional sitcom (with the various family settings) to a simultaneously absurd (Lion King, anyone?) and heartwarming (Jay coming to terms with his new grandchild) conclusion. However, a lot of the episodes since that point have done exactly the same thing, and while the absurd has remained pretty strong due to some great performances the warmth has begun to wear thin for me. It’s not that I don’t think the warmth is an important part of the show’s identity, but rather that when it presents the same way every single time.

“En Garde” is an enjoyable episode that has some nicely absurd moments and some nice subtle comedy, but the conclusion feels forced in a way that could just be the show’s shtick but also seems to me to be simplifying the show’s formula to a fault.

My favourite thing about this episode was something that the show never brought to our attention: having established that Jay loves creating gimmick t-shirts for his family, the show clearly points out the humour with “Who Da Manny?” and “Haley’s Comets” before letting the joke move into the background. However, for astute viewers, the show has Claire wearing a “Claire and Present Danger” t-shirt. It’s funny because the show never fully draws attention to it, and because it both further establishes Jay’s character and is probably the cleverest of the puns. When something is introduced into this universe, it’s not done in a half-assed fashion, and subtle moments like that endear me to the show.

I also like how the episode delved into the show’s past in order to draw out further dynamics between the show’s family members. The Claire/Mitchell plot was strong not because it told us something new (we know that Claire and Mitchell haven’t always gotten along) but because it helped to explain that pre-determined behaviour in the same way that Shelley Long’s arrival demonstrated how they came to be on opposite teams (to use the episode’s terminology). The fact that they remember that much of the choreography is a bit strange, but it resulted in a really enjoyable sequence that felt like Claire and Mitchell reaching a new stage in their relationship. Combine with Cameron’s commentary on the discussion, especially the fact that he was unable to stand the tension in regards to a bag of orange slices, and you have a storyline that fits these characters and ends with a fun bit of absurdism.

I also liked the general story of Manny’s fencing that seemed to branch off into the various other stories, both because it makes total sense for Manny to be great at fencing and because it was the kind of event the entire family would attend and thus justify this sort of interconnected narrative. The event itself falling into absurdist territory was a lot of fun with the outgoing support for Manny turning into terror, and little moments like the “cut it out” hand gesture being taken for the “rip off her head” gesture. I also like that they didn’t turn the girl into a total charity case, as she actively wanted to be aggressive and just wasn’t as good. It’s not as if Manny did anything particularly terrible, but rather that the situation changed in ways that were out of his control.

My problem with the episode, however, is in those final moments when a Jay voiceover establishes a preachy conclusion to the episode and its theme of wanting to see your children succeed in life no matter what their goals. It’s not that I don’t think there’s room for such a conclusion to the episode, but the voiceover is on the nose to the point of being patronizing. If the show wants its calling card to be these kinds of endings, that’s fine, but the episode had clearly laid out the idea of a family as a team (Claire and Mitchell’s storyline did this well) and thus didn’t need the voiceover to establish the point for us. In fact, the schmaltzy nature of the conclusion actually seemed as if it was glossing over some of the intricacies of the conclusion: I don’t think that Claire would be nearly so happy to have the video of her performance with Mitchell on YouTube (why not throw it in iMovie to avoid that issue?), and it made the finale of the sequence a bit strange. You could argue that the emphasis that it’s all about the hardware undercuts the sugary message of the passage, but then we get the picture of Mitchell and Claire beside the trophy, implying that it too is hardware of a sort. It just seems like the conclusion wasn’t funny nor was it anything the show hasn’t done before, so what’s the point?

I know that this is a sitcom, and not every episode has to have a point, but these conclusions make it seem like they do have a point, and a broadly defined and uninteresting one at that. The show’s warmth may be important to its identity, but the voiceover is not required for this to be true, and for me is actually distracting from the show’s comedy and its characters. “En Garde” is a solid episode that continues to show the qualities that make the series engaging, but that ending is just rubbing me the wrong way.

Cultural Observations

  • Love that my discussion of this subject on Twitter before posting my review then led to yet another debate (spurned by general guru Jaime Weinman) about the use of the preachy moral endings prominent within single-camera sitcoms.
  • While various elements of the series feel like Arrested Development (including the moral endings), the photo of Mitchell and Claire’s figure skating days gave me deifnite flashbacks to Motherboy.
  • Mitchell and Cameron’s interactions are always fun, but I really liked “hurtful bubbling.” It was a really fun term, for some reason.
  • The Phil subplot was ultimately a failure, primarily because it seemed a bit isolated from the rest of the stories. I like Luke’s lack of intelligence, but it seemed like we were following him only for Phil to have to crawl under cars for baseballs and slip on slippery stairs. Alex was the more engaging kid in the episode (the “iPod in the mouth” scene made me chuckle), but we follow Luke because he brings out Phil’s most marketable quality.


Filed under Modern Family

3 responses to “Modern Family – “En Garde”

  1. Nate

    Just real quick…I totally disagree with you on the Phil subplot. It showed that he is a great parent and will do anything for his kids. It’s obvious that he is a great dad and no matter how much of an idiot he is sometimes, he has that quality to fall back on. It’s really obvious why Claire would fall in love with him.

    • First off, I didn’t mean to insinuate that he is a terrible parent, so if I did that was unintentional.

      My issue is that the point you make could be made in ways that don’t happen to turn Phil into a buffoon in the process: the character’s been tied into one type of schtick, and I want to see the same points made through a diverse set of character traits.

  2. Jennifer

    I enjoyed the episode. I liked that Manny still trounced that girl’s ass (most sitcoms wouldn’t have done it). I loved the family shirts. I loved Claire and Mitchell ice skating in the parking lot. Oh, and iPod charging.

    Did not love Phil’s plot as much, but it wasn’t that bad. Really, the only not-needed note in the show was the moral preaching. I wish they hadn’t bothered, because they didn’t need to.

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