Modern Family – “Fears”


March 4th, 2010

I understand sitcom formulas: I know why they exist, I know why they can sometimes be very funny, and I understand why there are quite a few viewers who are in love with them. And while I’m on the record as amongst those who are not quite on the Modern Family bandwagon, I respect a lot of what the show is doing, and do not begrudge it for being formulaic to varying degrees each week.

If I’m being honest, “Fears” was one of the best episodes the show has done in its most limiting formula, the separation of the three families into distinct stories. The theme was consistent, the comedy was varied, and the show perhaps came the closest yet to earning its saccharine conclusion. None of the stories fell too far into comic farce to feel like they were shoehorned into the corny conclusion, and while every story was on the edge of tipping into that land of love and caring that makes me want to throw up, they mostly stayed within something funny and sweet without going too far.

And yes, that’s the most convoluted way of saying “this was a pretty good episode of Modern Family” you’re likely to find.

If Lily had said “Daddy” in that final scene, I would have quit this show forever.

I think that’s an important distinction: I knew where most of this week’s stories were going as soon as they began, so the episode basically comes down to execution. So while anyone who has been to the Santa Monica Pier knew that Manny was not going to be fishing once he got onto that boardwalk, the sight of Ed O’Neill in that sun hat was more than enough to sell the fairly simple story. And while we all knew that Phil’s phobias would keep him from being able to follow through on his adventurous plans he made with Luke until his son was in danger and needed his assistance, Ty Burrell sold his anxiety and his eventual heroism in a way that kept the story from falling too flat. Similarly, Haley’s struggles with her driving instructor reflected every story ever told about driving instructors, so of course she would get her license but still end up a terrible driver who forget to put the car into park.

The show has its formulas and sticks to them, which at times can makes episodes like these too predictable: there is an element of truth to these stories, perhaps, which makes them recognizable for the audience, but I think there’s a point where they can be too recognizable. What I like about the show is when it plays with these types of conventions, when it tells stories that aren’t quite so universal. There hasn’t been too many depictions (if any) of the situation that Cameron and Mitchell face, for instance, when Lily’s first word is “Mommy.” It stops their storyline dead, and throws both characters (not just the overdramatic Cameron) into a state of disrepair. And while the story has some hiccups (I thought the “Asians can’t drive” stereotype joke was entirely unnecessary), when it moves towards its conclusion and we really stop and evaluate their parenting, it’s really quite heartwarming.

And it ends on a note that’s sweet without making me retch: if she had said Daddies or something similar, like Maggie Simpson in that particularly famous Simpsons scene, it would have gone too far, but the idea that it was the doll who taught her the word, that it wasn’t some sort of subconscious cry for help, restores a sort of normalcy to their dynamic. Their stories have always been the show’s highlight for me, and I thought that this was another episode where the heartwarming speech at episode’s end felt a bit forced for everyone’s story but their own. Yes, the lesson applies to all of the various stories, but it felt like Mitchell and Cameron’s fears were the most unique and the most substantial, and it resulted in some of the episode’s best comedy and its most heartwarming sequences.

And sometimes I wonder why the show is so desperate for conclusions that are all-encompassing: why couldn’t one of the various stories involved have ended in a way where the fears weren’t overcome, where Haley doesn’t get her driver’s license or where Alex doesn’t have a date at the dance? The entire Alex story is an example of the sort of things that bugs me about the show: not only was Alex’s fear and anxiety entirely inconsistent with the badass overachiever we’ve seen in the past, but the episode didn’t have enough time for the character to show these supposed hidden anxieties in a way that didn’t seem forced just to allow one more scene in the montage set to Phil’s speech about parents and fear. This is going to seem like a stretch, but it’s sort of like complaints about the sixth season of Lost focusing too much on the broad mythology and placing the characters as pawns more than real people: I thought Alex was sort of amalgamated into this story in a way which bugs me, a way which makes me question the authenticity of the rest of the stories even though they were all significantly more successful.

These sorts of episodes can work, and I understand why this is the formula the show settles into most often: however, while it might be more realistic for the characters to be separated, it’s less realistic when the show insists on tying their stories together a bit too cleanly. As it so happens, the show earned 90% of its sweetness this week, but next week might not have the same effect, and if the same formula keeps being used its meaning could be gone by the time the season comes to an end.

Cultural Observations

  • Julie Bowen dancing was the one redemptive note in the Alex story.
  • I love the relationship between Phil and Luke, and while I’m somewhat tiring of Phil as a purely comic character his relationship with his son (who is clearly a mini-me in quite a few ways) is really kind of adorkable, in particular the montage and the coda where they make the elaborate plans.
  • There were a couple of non-punch line scene breaks early on in the episode, jokes that weren’t actually jokes – it was a weird bit of editing, and I wonder if there were extensions to the scenes cut for him or something similar.
  • At PaleyFest, it was officially revealed that Modern Family is heading on location in Hawaii in May, which gives the show a chance to break the general rule that vacation episodes are almost never a good idea. Consider me skeptical considering my issues with the show, but I’m open to seeing if it comes together more like “Fizbo” than the weaker segments.


Filed under Modern Family

7 responses to “Modern Family – “Fears”

  1. Peter

    This was an awesome review, and it pretty much encompasses my feelings about Modern Family, although I do have a deep seated hatred of all things Phil.
    What was interesting was I just watched Parenthood, and it was kind of doing all the things that Modern Family tries to do but in a more dramatic, instead of comedic, way. Modern Family, for all the ways that it tries to break stereotypical family conventions ends up having pretty stereotypical characters and situations – generally I find that the half hour time slot just isn’t enough to build up the kind of character points that you really need to sell a show like this, and too much of the time character development falls by the wayside to make a cheap joke. Anyway, this turned out to be a really long comment.

  2. Matt

    I didn’t quite get your criticism of Alex’ storyline. She’s uncomfortable in social situations, like the episode at the beginning where she doesn’t want to wear a dress (to a wedding?) because she doesn’t think she’s as beautiful as her sister. I found it consistent that she feared she might not find a dance partner and would just stand there alone. And I especially liked that she opened up to her mom instead of Gloria, that was a nice moment.

    • Like I said, I think if the story had been given more time it might have been able to go into as much detail as that early episode, which I really liked: Alex can have insecurities, but the character’s hard exterior needs to slowly dissolve rather than just disappear in two seconds flat. The anxiety was just a bit too much of a cliche for the character the way it was presented – Haley and Luke are pretty broad, but Alex is more complicated, and the storyline risked reducing her too far.

  3. Have to disagree with your assessment of poor Alex! As many people (read: most of the world) can attest, excelling in one area (say, school) does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that you’re confident in life or a huge-for-a-10-year-old-girl situation such as a dance.

    • My issue is why she would even want to go to the dance – if that had been a larger story, where they showed that she wanted to go to the dance for any particular reason, or where we saw a scene which perhaps contextualized her fear in more detail, I get the story. But none of that really happened, and so it felt like a fairly interesting character was being shoe-horned into a very non-descript plot for the sake of the overall theme of the episode – Alex’s intelligence and confidence CAN be broken down to reveal hidden anxieties, but here it sort of just disappeared for no reason but thematic continuity.

  4. Your issue is completely fair. And I’d agree that in contrast to Haley, Luke and Manny, Alex is woefully under-utilized (read: hardest to write for). But in defense (or as we say in Canadiana “defence”) of the character, when your older sister is as popular as Haley, it’s human nature to want to emulate her. Even if she clearly hides her admiration for her sister under layers of bitingly snarky one-liners.

  5. Pingback: Parenthood vs. Modern Family – Are they the same thing? « The Gramatically Negligent Review

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