“Travels with Scout”
April 28th, 2010
If we accept that Modern Family is going to be an inherently predictable show, then the difference between a good episode and a bad episode is what predictable behaviour it leans towards. In the case of “Travels with Scout,” we find a familiar three-part structure that offers each family with their own story, all of which reach somewhat heartwarming, somewhat embarrassing, ultimately positive conclusions.
And ultimately, this is the type of episode which works: the show isn’t really going to abandon this formula, and so long as those stories provide a solid balance of believable human behaviour and clever one-liners the show is pretty much in its comfort zone. The show runs into problems when it becomes predictably sappy or overwrought, and the few moments where “Travels with Scout” could move in that direction are nicely undercut with the subtle deployment of some broad comedy.
It’s not going to be a series best, but it feels like an episode which earns its running time, which is what the show should be doing at this stage in the season.
If you’ve seen Fred Willard in anything, you’ve seen Fred Willard on Modern Family: everything becomes a joke, to the point where the character would be kind of dramatically one-note if that one note were not being played by Fred Willard, who I just generally enjoy. What made the story work was that not only is this very logically what Phil’s father would be like (constant jokes, inability to communicate like a real adult, etc.), but the character’s struggles to not joke about everything to hide inner pain actually became one of the episode’s storylines. The show didn’t pretend that his jokey exterior was just a joke and not something deeper, and by not taking that for granted the show keeps the character from seeming like an excuse to have Fred Willard tell some jokes. And while you could argue that the character being distraught over the dog rather than over marital troubles may seem like a cop out, it’s a much better fit for the character, and is a sort of heartwarming ending which seems balanced rather than saccharine. It nicely focuses on Claire’s attachment to the dog and Phil’s moment with his father, but isn’t so dark that they can’t include a dick joke and have the “Luke is worse than a dog” running gag play out the episode proper. It was just a nicely balanced storyline, which took some organization.
As for the interconnected story with Cameron ending up the drummer for Dylan’s band, it was fun: again, the show avoids the overly heartwarming (Mitchell staying to watch Cameron play instead of going to Pepper’s Apres-Ski party) conclusion by turning it into the world’s longest drum solo and by having the band’s other drummer return, which is predictable but in a way which allows the show to have its cake and avoid shoving it down our throats at the same time. The show was somewhat less successful with the “Manny is terrified of a horror movie” story, if only because it was so short on time that the show never bothered to reconcile (or point out the contradition between) Manny’s mature personality and his relatively “immature” response to the horror movie. I think that’s a neat story, in that even the kid who acts so much like an adult can be scared, but the show played it for broad laughs and never got into why Jay took him to the movie. I’d have much rather the show have had Manny be the one who wanted to go to the movie, thinking that he was mature enough to handle it, as it would have helped the story speak better to his character and not just play out like “kid scared of scary movie.”
Like I say, “Travels with Scout” wasn’t reinventing the wheel, but I like some of the subtle things it did. I thought it made sense that Cameron would come over to visit the dog, as I would have otherwise spent the episode thinking why no one else in the family would come to visit a new arrival like that. Plus, the coda ended up speaking to why the entire family went to the gig (Willard’s line slayed me), so the show knows when it’s stretching things a bit far for the sake of bringing everyone together. The show can’t do it too often, and I think that having everyone at the concert was certainly stretching it, but it didn’t play out as one huge conflict, and simply allowed multiple stories to co-exist in the same place for a bit. I’ll give the show a cheat like that every now and then, it only seems fair.
- Mitchell might remember him as the stranger holding his daughter, but I’ll remember that other member of Dylan’s band as the guy who brought us “Dude, you should label those sticks.”At least I think it was the same guy.
- Some one-liners, meanwhile, become a bit too lame: the “someone’s panties are in a bunch” line was taking things too far.
- Claire taking over Luke’s bike ride wasn’t a particularly complex gag, but the sight of Julie Bowen on a bike angrily throwing newspapers in a defeatist fashion was quite fun.
- I really hope that the kid playing Luke has a really well-developed sense of humour or a good therapist. Or both.