November 18th, 2009
In terms of the great comedy battle of 2009, which continues to rage amongst shows both new and old, Modern Family is at a distinct disadvantage: with Parks and Recreation delivering some legitimately great comedy and Community doing a really compelling and confident meta-storyline, the simplicity of this show is a disadvantage in terms of being flashy. There comes a point where the hype surrounding the show creates greater expectations than the storylines themselves can live up to in terms of their premise, requiring viewers to appreciate the strong execution where originality isn’t overtly present.
“Great Expectations” is a solid episode of the show, featuring a number of fun loving gags and a couple of big guest stars, but nothing stands out as particularly stunning as compared to some of the other comedies. In this instance, I think there was enough nuance to each individual story to continue to prove how strong the writers understand these characters, but it nonetheless follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s one of their stronger episodes due to a nice role reversal, but it’s not reaching as high as some of the other comedies are right now.
For me, this episode is about the little things more than it is about the guest stars. While Elizabeth Banks (playing Cameron and Mitchell’s barhopping friend Sal) and Edward Norton (playing the bass player/backup vocalist from Spandau Ballet) are both very funny and integrated well into the episode, the storylines they’re involved in really have very little to do with them. I thought the Cameron/Mitchell story was perhaps the episode’s least interesting, if only because it was so predictable: we’re shown that they’re having trouble getting out with Lily around, they make a night out of it with a friend, and discover that their friend is jealous of Lily and devolves into a petulant child. There’s nothing wrong with the storyline, and Banks sells the child-like reaction perfectly, but the storyline had absolutely no twists or turns or nuances to it – just a couple of fun moments (Mitchell refusing to allow her to hold her, Mitchell’s “I’m going in!” Re: new boobs), and strong performances all around.
I thought the other two storylines were simply more interesting conceptually. Jay’s Night, featuring Sloppy Jays and western movies, was the sort of storyline that was charming because of how great Ed O’Neill is and more importantly how you get small little running gags like Gloria’s tone deaf singing or Luke taking everything that Jay says as a sign that he’s going to die soon. Combine with the running battle between Jay and Haley, which nicely ties into what we know of Claire’s own childhood, and the conclusion with Dylan wanting to stick around for Jay’s Night, and the storyline just had a nice flow to it. It was never overly dramatic or overly broad (Jay squirting Manny like a dog was perhaps a BIT broad), staying within a simple comic mode and delivering on its promise.
And I thought the Claire/Phil storyline was the episode’s strongest, if not comically, then certainly in terms of the characters. Phil is still a bit too much like Michael Scott (the scene listing off the things he wants could have very easily been put into Steve Carell’s mouth without much in terms of change), but as with Michael it’s always good when he gets to be the smart one. He, unlike his wife, is capable of being romantic, so the anniversary becomes about Claire’s struggles rather than Phil’s. It’s a nice change of pace, as Julie Bowen is likeable even when she’s incapable of being romantic and Ty Burrell was great in interacting with (his good friend) Edward Norton as they struggle over whether the charade (which was a pretty ingenious comic device) could be continued. Like I say, the big laughs weren’t there, but the emotional payoff was solid and it kept Phil out of his usual tomfoolery role.
Nothing complex, but a funny and enjoyable episode – no need to place it relative to anything else to enjoy that.
- Alex gets all of the best one-liners amongst the grandchildren, and here she both played into Haley’s vanity and created Luke’s trauma over her grandfather’s death. Hoping for another episode for her soon.
- I was thinking of how Edward Norton was going to do “funny” in this show’s style, and it’s clear now that I should have thought of “accent” right away. Always funny!
- Spandau Ballet, of course, is an actual band, although I didn’t entirely realize this until I heard him humming the melody of “True” and I realized I recognized it (but would never have known the band name). I did enjoy the joke the show got out of this, as the reason Izzy Lafontaine refused to continue the performance was that the song was called “True” and the story was false.
- Wait, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark was also a real band? Oh, The 80s.