“Up All Night”
January 6th, 2010
For a show that likes to wrap up each episode with a lesson that defines the show’s themes, I’m somewhat disappointed that Modern Family seems to be unable to learn lessons based on the first part of its season. Now, don’t get me wrong: the show is still early in its run, so I’m not expecting the show to have ironed out all of its problems. However, for a show that is often considered such a “well-crafted” comedy (a quality that I would not challenge in terms of the show’s best episodes/scenes), there’s a point where some fairly serious structural issues are coming to the surface for me as an audience member, and I’m concerned that the level of critical praise for the series will keep them from investigating these problems further so long as the ratings stay strong.
So when episodes like “Up All Night” seem particularly flat, I want the writers to notice that it’s because they separated the families, and that as a result one story felt like an extended comedy sketch, another felt like a series of comedy sketches, and the other rested on its laurels due to the presence of the week’s guest star. There were some token efforts to tie the three stories together, but in the end the show told three stories that felt like they were only firing on one cylinder.
And while, as always, the show is capable of being quite funny on occasion, there are episodes like this one which indicate that the writers aren’t willing to go the extra mile to push the boundaries of their characters or their situations each week. And the Modern Family we see in “Up All Night” is not the show at its finest, and I have to wonder if the creators will bother to recognize that so long as the show remains an “unqualified” success.
I likely sounded really cranky above the fold, didn’t I? Yeah, well, I probably shouldn’t be so harsh on this show, but I think I’m getting to the point where I’m cynical towards characters I liked in the beginning because they’ve yet to show any real progress since that point. There were moments in Cameron and Mitchell’s storyline that I thought were great bits of physical comedy or wonderfully absurd scenarios (the idea that Lily loves Scarface), and Eric Stonestreet continues to be a fantastic comic presence. However, the storyline was an extended comedy sketch and little more: there was nothing to make the story feel particularly resonant, and it only played into the already pre-existing and fairly reductive “Mitchell = uptight, Cameron = wacky” stereotype that really does neither character any favours.
It perhaps wouldn’t be a problem if the show didn’t occasionally go beyond those stereotypes with episodes like Mitchell’s trip to Costco, and if it didn’t often deliver unique and hilarious takes on those stereotypes (Fizbo, anyone?). My point isn’t that Cameron and Mitchell aren’t funny, or that the show can’t investigate their parenting technique, but the show is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it makes every episode out to be a lesson that the characters are learning, but on the other hand the show wants to transport characters back to basic pilot definitions every few episodes. And while bringing all of those characters together still feels eventful, when you isolate them you start to see that there is very little novel about this story.
The same problem is plaguing Ty Burrell’s Phil, who is still a very funny character in large groups but who is becoming repetitive when isolated with Claire and the kids. It’s not that Phil isn’t funny, but his stories seem to be the same joke over and over again: he overreacted to his condition when it arrived, then overreacted to it when he was in the hospital. It reminds me of the worst kind of Saturday Night Live sketches which tend to tell the same joke again and again as if it’s only going to get funnier with time – while Modern Family is unquestionably better executed than those sketches, its comedy in those types of scenes is often no more sophisticated. The story got better when it became about Claire dressing up for the Firemen, and then Phil losing all of the potential benefit from Claire’s guilt to his magic show antics with some attractive women, but there’s really nothing that ties any of this together: the story promises to answer the question “what happens when Phil gets appendicitis,” and yet the answer is nothing beyond “Phil acts like he always does.”
I thought the Jay/Manny/Javier story was actually the episode’s most successful, primarily because it felt like it had actual consequences and seemed to show characters acting and reacting to the storyline taking place. It was also the storyline that felt like it earned some sort of emotional conclusion, as Jay got to learn first hand what it meant to be seduced by a Columbian. However, I spent the entire story wondering why Benjamin Bratt got so little material, and how this episode wouldn’t have been infinitely funnier if he could have been the one inspiring Claire to get dressed up, or if Cameron and Mitchell’s fawning over the firemen could have been replaced with fawning over Javier. I’m imagining an episode where a member of each family becomes disappointed when Javier doesn’t show up, a more complex story where his impact isn’t isolated to a single storyline. Basically, I’m imagining the show that put together a sterling episode featuring Shelley Long that brought the whole family together, as opposed to the show which largely wasted both Elizabeth Banks and Edward Norton by limiting their presence.
I understand that not every episode is going to be a large get together for the family, but I think we’re getting to the point where the writers are coasting on what they know works instead of trying things that might actually work too. Early in the season we had some nice pairings like Gloria and Alex, so I’m kind of wondering what happened to that show; if their argument is that they don’t need to do that every week, I’d have to contend that the best thing the show could do is create some diversity between episodes to keep things fresh. Episodes that separate the three families should be a last resort, because even with an attempt to use cute soundbytes from the kids and the firemen to tie the stories together this episode felt like the writers took three decent story ideas from a giant board and put them together.
And while that might not make for bad television, it does make for a low degree of difficulty that I believe to be beneath what this show is capable of, and no guest star is enough to make up for that.
- I can’t help comparing Phil with Michael Scott, especially during that final monologue about what he would be able to get the longer he lets Claire’s guilt fester. The comparison is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, which is why I really want the show to try to break some new ground with the character. I like episodes which upend he and Claire’s relationship (the novelty of which sustained me through the Ed Norton story), but this one sort of resisted that temptation.
- I like Benjamin Bratt, but I sort of question how subdued he played Javier: this was the person who Gloria supposedly fought/had sex with out a window with? I know the show was going for a more subdued take in order to explain why he might leave Manny, and for Jay to start to think he’s a decent guy, but outside of some extravagant gifts I thought Bratt was almost too low-key for the character (who, based on the previous dialogue, was a bit of a caricature).
- I also have to question whether it was smart to give both Cameron and Phil such physical-comedy heavy stories in the same episode – both had funny moments (I liked Phil’s “like you’re hugging me, but don’t touch me” move), but it might have been too much for a single set of stories.
- Fun callback to “Don’t Talk Black” in Phil’s hospital scene with Luke (see, I noticed some good things too).