Modern Family – “Starry Night”

“Starry Night”

March 24th, 2010

I think we’re past the point where I need to go into my usual rant about Modern Family, a show which is well-crafted and funny but not necessarily funny because it is well-crafted. In other words, the show has some very funny performers who are often given funny things to do, but the structures of the show, for me personally, tend to impede rather than improve those stories. The show is unquestionably well-crafted, but there are times when I see the fingerprints of writers and directors all over the show, and it sort of takes me out of the moment and makes me appreciate the show more than I love it.

So while I’m tired of trying to lay out the whole “like, not love” situation with the show, I do want us to keep it in mind, since some very engaging stories were ever-so-slightly damaged by a bit of over-writing in “Starry Night.” While the sort of non-linear storytelling the show seems to love so much makes sense in certain instances, including one of the stories in this episode, it overcomplicated the others in a way which continues to frustrate me – I laughed in between my furrowed brows, don’t get me wrong, but I want to avoid the furrowing altogether.

When Alex is listing off the various traits of ADHD, the show doesn’t really need to cut to Phil displaying every single one of them – we have known for quite some time that Phil and Luke are cut from the same cloth, and we even had a nice story on that note a few weeks ago as the two of them ventured under the house in search of treasure, so it’s not as if we’re being told something new or revelatory. However, the show decided that it would be funnier and more effective if Phil’s time in the garage were to unfold as Alex narrated his behaviour, and I think they were right – Ty Burrell is a gifted physical comedian, and the gag made me laugh.

However, Modern Family loves to pull those kinds of tricks, and my issue is that they seem to use them fairly indiscriminately. Take, for example, the decision to have Manny insult Mitchell for a third of the episode before going back in time in order to show us that he was only doing so because he was trying to awkwardly fit in with his “brother.” I understand why you bury the lede when it comes to why Manny was on the trip, as it leads into the final conclusion, but not giving context to Manny’s insults doesn’t make them funnier. In fact, it robs them of any meaning at all, and so the storyline didn’t actually really start until those pieces come together. On a 20-minute sitcom where you’re trying to do three stories, you don’t have time to waste, and yet the love of non-linearity means that Manny looked like a jerk for 8 minutes for no real reason other than to effectively show off.

The same thing happened in the story with Mitchell and Gloria, which was a pairing the show has never done before and which was off to a great start: they show some awkwardness between them in the car, and then they have Mitchell and Cameron do an interview in order to explain why he thinks it’s awkward. That bit of back story makes perfect sense, and it makes for a potential-filled sitcom setup: Cameron is trying too hard, and things don’t seem to be gong well, so it seems like the show is ready to just sit back and let things play out. However, rather than showing us how bad things are going, the show wants to tell us to. I love Eric Stonestreet in this role, and he’s probably the best at the confessional interviews, but they were a complete distraction here. I’m imagining a scene with two fun performers, entirely uninterrupted, selling all of the awkwardness that he was implying, and I just plain see a better show. When the show decided to go uninterrupted, when Cameron’s food turns out to be too spicy and he his moment, the story gets more confident and more humorous.

I don’t understand why the show believes that linear stories are such a horrible thing. There was some nice work in terms of stories coming together (the dress coming up in one story and then emerging in the next), and I liked the resolution to the Phil/Claire story (especially Luke’s sentimental speech about Van Gogh turning into a warning of an imminent alien invasion), but all of that subtlety seemed secondary to the sort of narrative tinkering that is keeping me from engaging with the show. If it was necessary, or particularly effective, I would embrace it – however, when it’s not used to its full potential and feels like it’s being used because the show has decided to use it as a framework regardless of its effectiveness, I can’t help but feel the show is still missing opportunities.

Cultural Observations

  • I’ll be honest: not showing Mitchell get skunked was sort of a cheat. The cut from Mitchell talking about his bad luck (or something of the sort) to him returning after having been skunked was just a bit too abrupt/contrived, and I would have rather had him on the phone with Cameron trying to explain the situation or something so that we could get a better sense of his side of that story.
  • On that note, while I don’t find Mitchell in a dress inherently funny, Jesse Tyler Ferguson was wonderfully ungraceful in his attempt to sit down and talk to Manny in it, so I’ll buy it.
  • I worry that the show is going to risk becoming too formulaic if it sticks to mixing the Jay/Gloria/Cameron/Mitchell parts of the show too often – while the Phil/Claire story may be the most robust on its own, it needs to be able to interact with the other stories so that it doesn’t feel like they’re in a different show. The “Starry Night” connection may be enough to hold it together for now, but it’s just something they need to be wary of.
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