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Friday, September 23, 2011

Modern Family returns at the top of its game

      This week, ABC's Modern Family presents two new episodes to kick off the show's third season. The first finds the family going to a "Dude Ranch." Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) wants to prove he is masculine enough to adopt a son, while Phil (Ty Burrell, who recently won an Emmy for the role) tries to show Jay (Ed O'Neill), once more, that he is a worthy son-in-law. Claire (Julie Bowen, who also won the Emmy) must try to stay out of it when Dylan (Reid Ewing) proposes to Haley (Sarah Hyland). "When Good Kids Go Bad" finds Cam (Eric Stonestreet) worrying that he coddled Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) too much. Manny (Rico Rodriguez) can't stay quiet when he's done wrong. And Claire becomes obsessed with proving to everyone that she is right.

     At the ranch, the family meets a man named Hank (Tim Blake Nelson, Chaos), who hits mercilessly on Gloria (Sofia Vergara). After awhile, Jay grows tired of it, and confronts him. Hank backs off, claiming it's all part of the experience. Of course, it would be folly to buy that line. And Gloria shows no interest in being unfaithful to Jay in the slightest. Which makes this subplot the odd one that doesn't really fit in this Modern Family episode. It feels forced, and not as humorous as the rest of the situations unfolding.

     Phil is always seeking Jay's approval. But honing his cowboy skills will not change things between them after eighteen years. It is quite possible that Phil's constant need to try and raise himself in Jay's eyes is what Jay doesn't like. Phil desperately craves the approval, and Jay doesn't want to give it when asked to so blatantly. Phil finally rants at Jay in a charged moment, but Jay just shakes his head, and they are distracted before the issue is resolved. Considering Jay is soon riding on Phil's horse, obviously they have some kind of understanding. But if Jay tells Phil that he's proud of him, it isn't shown on screen. Which is fine, because it's not in Jay's character to give Phil some big sappy speech. When the time comes to finally acknowledge appreciation, near or in the series finale, Jay will probably do it in a sentence or two.

     Claire needs to learn not to control everything. She is so tightly round that she is about ready to snap. While she has every right to be concerned with who Haley marries, thinking she has any influence over that decision now is completely wrong. Jay tries to warn her not to push too hard, and Claire does make some attempt, but it doesn't work. Claire did as good a job as she could raising her daughter, and now it's time to step back and let whatever happens, happen. This will be a difficult transition for Claire, but one she will have to begin facing over the next couple of seasons as Haley graduates and starts her adult life.

     Sadly, Dylan decides to stay at the ranch, ending his recurring role on Modern Family, at least for now. Haley would be making a mistake to marry him, of course, but Ewing is a funny actor, and his scenes with Burrell are some of the highlights of the series. Perhaps he will return home eventually to try to woo Haley once more. 'Til then...

     While at the ranch, Alex (Ariel Winter) meets an obnoxious Jersey kid named Jimmy (Matthew Gumley), who annoys her and steals a kill. Alex is flabbergasted, completely upset that the boy ruins her first kissing experience. Yet, she is oddly attracted to him, and ends up kissing him back. This little story may be a stereotype told many times over, but it is charming and funny in "Dude Ranch." Alex needs to loosen up, and whatever else Jimmy does, he forces her to do that. She can't plan everything, and that's the lesson he teaches her. She's on vacation, away from her home, and sometimes things get a little crazy in such a setting.

     Mitchell's struggle to see himself as an appropriate male role model is as touching as it is funny. The fact that he goes to such much effort proves he has what it takes to be a good dad. Mitchell has his share of faults, but caring about his family is not one of them, even if he isn't always sure how to show it.  Watching Mitchell discover why explosions can be funny with nephew Luke (Nolan Gould) is great! Thank goodness Cam sends the boy to his husband, even if the original plan didn't work out.

     What Jay does to Manny in "When Good Kids Go Bad" borders on torturing a child. Knowing that Gloria is making Manny lie about owning up to a mistake, Jay pushes Manny into feeling very guilty until he breaks. Why? Gloria is just trying to protect her kid. Manny is a good boy, and has likely already learned his lesson before Jay shames him in front of the family. The only way that Modern Family can get away with such a cruel plot, while not making the character of Jay unlikable, is because it's an example of a personality trait that he passes onto his children, and it ties into their stories as well.

     Mitchell scolds Cam for being too clingy with Lily, making her possessive of him. But Mitchell soon discovers Lily's real issue is sharing, and that's a bad habit that she learns from him, not Cam. Still, Mitchell can't bring himself to tell that to Cam, leaving Cam miserable and upset when he later finds out. Yet, despite this, their relationship is still, overall, one of the best marriages on television. Every couple has their squabbles, and no one likes to fess up to being wrong. It all makes for a pretty fun set up to Mitchell accidentally announcing to the family their intention to adopt a little boy. Much cooler than Cam's planned dramatics.

     Claire has inherited Jay's need to be right even more severely. After Phil accidentally knocks her over while chatting up a hot girl and denies it, no one in the family believes Claire's story. And even if they do, they don't care because her obsessive need to never be wrong is something they all reluctantly live with. So Claire makes it worse by actually getting the store's security camera footage and forcing them to admit that she was right. It's a hollow victory, with no one congratulating her. Even when right, she still loses. Which is hopefully a lesson she will take away from the experience.

     Yet, Claire is still a good mother. She is right about Luke not liking his new attic bedroom, which Haley and Alex force him into so that they can have their own rooms. Instead of gloating, though, she kindly gets him out of the situation, while saving his face. So she isn't all bad, and is actually quite a good mother.

     The new Lily gets her first bit of plot in "When Good Kids Go Bad." I have to say, skipping her a year older feels like something is lost. Lily is still a baby who doesn't speak when season two ends, and now she is walking and has personality. Plus, they establish in dialogue that her character is three, even though she was introduced as an infant two years ago. It feels like it happens over night, and it somewhat unsatisfying. While the new Lily is not objectionable, per se, I wish they would have let viewers see her third year of life, rather than skipping to the start of her fourth.


     Besides all the drama covered above, both episodes were absolutely hilarious! As good as any in previous seasons. Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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