KIP MOONEY: It occurred to me some time Sunday, while I was watching the Emmys and getting swept up in Modern Family’s sheer dominance, that I may have been a little harsh on it last season. To be sure, there were a couple dud episodes (“Dance Dance Revelation” and “Earthquake” being lowlights for me), but after an essentially perfect first season, everything had to be placed under more intense scrutiny.
So now that I can accept that this show won’t be prefect week-in, week-out, the pressure’s off, two Emmy wins notwithstanding. It’s good that I’m coming to this realization, because tonight’s first episode is not that great.
“Dude Ranch” is an attempt to recreate the magic of the Hawaii two-parter from season one, but several elements hold it back. First is Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Compared to some of the fantastic guest stars we’ve had over the first two seasons (Shelley Long, Fred Willard, Celia Weston), his character is too broadly drawn to make any impression besides annoyance. He’s seemingly in every scene that doesn’t involve Alex (who we’ll get to in a moment), and his presence wears thin quickly.
Alex, who has always drifted away from the group, gets her first kiss from a kid who fancies himself a reincarnated member of the Rat Pack. He’s a little one-note, but was he really all that different from Manny in Season 1? Not really, plus it was sweet for Alex to put down her copy of Freakonomics (which officially makes her the Lisa Simpson of this show) and have a romantic interest. I’m still a little appalled by her fashion choice at the Emmys, but that’s for another article.
Phil and Jay do their typical “Do-You-Respect-Me?” song-and-dance while Cam and Mitch fret over being good parents for the umpteenth time. That doesn’t work here, but somehow works like gangbusters in tonight’s second episode.
Which brings us to Dylan. He’s always been my favorite character outside the main cast, mainly because he steals every scene. I’m a little sad to see him go, especially in such a ludicrous manner, but they couldn’t have kept him on forever. But, oh what he brought to an otherwise lackluster episode. From his continued awkwardness around Claire (thinking her for Mrs. Robinson after she innocuously touches his leg) and hilarious way of hiding his emotions (“There’s a fan in my room that sounds like a man crying”), I didn’t quite go as overboard in my sentiment as Phil (who openly weeps when boarding the shuttle for home), but I will still miss the naïveté his character brought.
Gloria, getting off the plane: “I want my ears to pop.”
Manny: “Put a little rouge on.”
Luke: “Let’s just say if they had this during the war, right now we’d all be knee-deep in strudel.”
– on his German firecracker
Dylan: “Rode a horse for the first time today/Wasn’t surprised when it said ‘Neigh!’”
– his equestrian song’
Tonight’s second episode fared much better with me.
Cam and Mitch’s parental worries seemed much less contrived, as Cam over-coddling and Mitch’s lack of sharing both introduce bad habits to Lily, who can talk. I was afraid this would be a classic sitcom pitfall, where the baby suddenly ages. But Modern Family sidestepped this gracefully. Lily doesn’t say anything precocious (at least not yet). She’s just a regular preschooler.
It was also great to see Haley and Alex team up for some conniving again. I wasn’t a fan of their sisterly mischief last season until “See You Next Fall,” when their relationship got tested and strengthened. Tonight they plot against Luke, trying to nudge him to live in the attic so they each can have their own rooms.
Meanwhile, Claire goes on a somewhat ridiculous quest to prove Phil pushed her at the supermarket. (Accidentally, of course, while he was being overly friendly with an attractive customer in the produce section.) Once everyone realizes how nuts she gets, going so far as to request surveillance feed from the grocery store, it dawns on her that her quest to always be right leads her to rarely being taken seriously.
It turns out she learned this behavior from Jay, who spent most of the episode trying to prove that not only did Manny steal a girl’s locket (but not to wear it, thank God! Anyone else think that was an odd distinction for Jay to make?) and then had Gloria cover for him and not have him ‘fess up.
This second episode worked better because everyone seemed to not try so hard. It was basically effortless, and that made the show feel like the family we’ve come to love and call the best sitcom on TV two years in a row.
Alex to Haley: “One more year ‘til you leave or you go to college? Because those are two different things.”
Luke: “There’s a line of ants going to a trick-or-treat bag in my closet. I don’t want to be there when they get tired of candy.”
Cam: “She looks like she was dipped in glue and dragged through a flea market.”
– on Lily’s decision to dress herself
HOWARD MEGDAL: Agree fully with Kip that the second episode easily eclipsed the first. But I would argue that both episodes fell short of the heights reached in the first two seasons.
The decision to film on location itself had no basis in character or plot. The trip to Hawaii was Gloria’s idea for Jay, and so the destination itself served a useful purpose. Here? It just seems to be a place for the characters to do what they do.
And those plotlines make far less sense here. The ranch hand would get fired for his pass at Gloria. Jay isn’t going to think more of Phil for being cowboy-like. And why exactly do we need to say goodbye to Dylan? The episode mostly proves that Modern Family wouldn’t be great as a western.
I enjoy portions of the second episode a great deal. Cam’s banner unveiling is fantastic, and Gloria’s criminal persona is well-used. But when Claire is one-dimensional, it is a waste of Julie Bowen. And Cam’s issue with Lily is informed by the first two seasons; Mitchell’s is tacked on. Hence, the Cam attachment examples are much funnier than Mitchell’s anti-sharing indicators.
Regardless, lovely to see the show back on the air.