Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 10, 2012)
One of TV’s best-regarded – and highest-rated - comedies, Modern Family brings us back for its third season on Blu-ray. To recap the show’s premise, the series revolves around the Pritchett family. Patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill) married much, much younger Colombian sexpot Gloria (Sofia Vergara) a few years earlier and took on her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) as his stepchild.
The show also follows the lives of Jay’s two kids. Daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) leads the more conventional existence. She’s been married to Phil (Ty Burrell) for 18 years and has three kids: late-teen girl Haley (Sarah Hyland), early-teen girl Alex (Ariel Winter) and young adolescent boy Luke (Nolan Gould).
Finally, Mitchell (Jesse Typer Ferguson) lives with his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). At the series’ start, they adopted Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) from Vietnam. Family follows various events and interactions in the characters’ lives, with an emphasis. I’ll look at all 24 episodes in broadcast order. The plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray’s menus.
Dude Ranch: “The entire Pritchett/Dunphy clan heads to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to spend a week on a dude ranch.”
Hmm… wasn’t that the plot of a Brady Bunch episode? Or maybe I’m thinking of City Slickers. Despite the moderately derivative nature of the show, “Ranch” works well. It’s nice to see all the characters so closely involved; most programs veer off onto more separate branches, so it’s enjoyable to watch the whole clan stuck together. Toss in a fine guest turn from Tim Blake Nelson and “Ranch” launches the season successfully.
When Good Kids Go Bad: “Mitchell and Cameron are ready to adopt another baby, but Lily is perfectly happy being an only child. Gloria is face with the task of humbling herself in front of Manny’s principal. Haley and Alex devise a plan to get their own rooms.”
After the showiness of “Ranch”, the series comes back down to earth with “Bad”. It’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, but it has more than a few moments, especially within the Mitchell/Cameron relationship; the episode’s best bits come from their flaws as partners/parents.
Phil on Wire: “Cameron and Mitchell go on a juice fast. Jay and Gloria spar over Stella, their new dog. Phil is inspired by a documentary on tightrope walking and takes it up himself. Haley is horrified to learn that her overachieving little sister has been placed in her math class.”
If they’re going to show us a castmember in the shower, does it have to be Ed O’Neill? I’m not sure if he’s the actor I least want to see in the buff – Stonestreet’s on the same level – but why couldn’t it be Vergara, dammit?
Unpleasant visuals aside, “Wire” turns into another strong show, largely on the strength of Mitchell/Cameron again. Cameron is the character I love to hate, mostly because he reminds me so much of my best friend’s partner; I’m not fond of said partner, so I derive perverse pleasure from Cameron’s irritating nature. Other aspects of the show aren’t quite as good – mainly the semi-lame tightrope thread – but this is still a generally positive program.
Door to Door: “Jay is determined to help Manny sell wrapping paper for a school fundraiser. Claire petitions the city for a stop sign. Mitchell is hell-bent on proving a point with Cameron. Phil and Luke will stop at nothing to create a viral video. Gloria is desperate to find Stella after losing her.”
Didn’t we essentially already do the Claire thread in S2’s “Slow Down Your Neighbors”? I guess the two shows are somewhat different, but they still involve Claire and traffic control, so her theme here feels like a retread.
That’s a negative factor, and the inevitable Streetcar Named Desire reference is too predictable to succeed; I suspect the producers named the dog “Stella” just so they could exploit that gag. The episode still delivers some amusing bits, but it displays more flaws than usual.
Hit and Run: “Jay is frustrated at work, Manny is stressed out about school work, and Gloria would like to help. Phil and Claire run into their irritating councilman Duane Bailey (David Cross). Mitchell and Cameron get into a fender bender.”
“Run” lacks any notable strengths, though it doesn’t come with any prominent weaknesses, either. That said, I’m hoping Gloria gets a little breadth at some point; she’s perilously close to self-parody. Still, there’s reasonable entertainment value here.
Go Bullfrogs!: “Phil takes Haley on a college tour of his old alma mater. Claire forces Mitchell and Cameron to take her out for a fun night with the boys. Gloria and Jay deal with a potential situation at home that may require having 'the talk’ with Manny.”
All of this episode’s threads follow the same theme, and they all do pretty well for each other. I can’t pick out a strength, though I like Jay’s obsession with the Colombian soap opera. The other threads flow nicely and make this a consistently solid program.
Treehouse: “Gloria gives Jay an ultimatum to step it up for a night of salsa dancing or else. Cameron takes a bet a little too far when Mitchell and Crispin challenge him to get a hot girl’s number at the bar. Phil builds a treehouse for Luke.”
“Treehouse” provides another episode with no weaknesses but no great strengths. All of the threads work pretty well, but I can’t claim any of them soar.
After the Fire: “After a neighbor’s home burns down, the whole family rallies and organizes a community drive to do some good.”
And the naked Ed O’Neill parade continues! Ugh – we need some compensation before too long. Other than that unpleasant sight, “Fire” goes along in a pleasing way. The Jay/Phil theme does the most for me, but all the threads move well.
Punkin Chunkin: “Thanksgiving with the family is divided between the ‘dreamers’ and the ‘Pritchetts’. Nothing settles the score like a ‘Punkin Chunkin’ challenge.”
Holidays are usually a good chance for solid comedy, and “Chunkin” achieves its goals. The titular tale offers some fun, and Phil’s revelation creates good moments. I could live without the sappy finish, though.
Express Christmas: “Everyone sets off with their respective duties for Express Christmas: Mitchell, Alex and Lily get the tree; Jay and Cameron are in charge of gift wrapping; Phil and Manny get the groceries; Gloria and Luke retrieve the ornaments; Claire and Haley shop for gifts.”
In addition to its kooky premise, “Express” benefits from its unusual personality combinations. It sticks together characters who don’t normally hang with each other, and that gives the show real pep. This is a fast-paced, fun episode.
Lifetime Supply: “After a doctor’s visit, Phil automatically jumps to conclusions and starts saying his goodbyes. Javier pops up again and takes Manny to the horse races. Competition ensues when Mitchell brings home an award and it becomes a game of who has the bigger trophy.”
The series’ guest stars can be spotty, but Benjamin Bratt adds zest as Manny’s cocky dad. Philip Baker Hall is also fun as Luke’s elderly friend, but Bratt becomes the main attraction in this solid episode.
Egg Drop: “Luke and Manny have a big school project to designm but when Claire and Jay catch wind of it, their own competitive drives kick in. Phil solicits the help of Haley and Gloria to sit as plants in the audience during a huge real estate presentation. Mitchell and Cameron meet with prospective birth mothers.”
After a few particularly strong programs, “Drop” sags a bit. No, it’s not a bad show, but it just feels a little more like it’s on cruise control when compared to its predecessors. Still, average Family remains enjoyable.
Little Bo Bleep: “The family helps Claire prepare for her upcoming debate with Duane Bailey for the town council seat. Lily has just discovered her first expletive and Mitchell and Cameron don’t know how best to deal with this new parenting test. Jay is concerned with Stella’s recent strange behavior and puts the blame on Gloria.”
I hoped “Bleep” would offer a good rebound from “Drop”, but it’s another decent but unspectacular show. Easily the best elements come from the debate; when it hits its inevitable meltdown, it generates good comedy. The remainder doesn’t go as well, however, and the Lily thread is especially weak; gags about cursing kids got stale decades ago.
Me? Jealous?: “Phil is so preoccupied with impressing a prospective client that he doesn’t notice him being overtly inappropriate with Claire. Jay and Gloria let Mitchell and Cameron stay over while their house is fumigated.”
Another tired concept pops up via the house guest theme. Frankly, The Flintstones did it better; that side of things doesn’t go much of anywhere. A few other elements function a bit better, but this isn’t an especially strong episode.
Aunt Mommy: “After closing on the sale of a house to Mitchell and Cameron’s friends, Phil and Claire take the two of them out for a celebratory dinner.”
The thread with the potential Claire/Cameron baby feels a little too “soap opera” for my liking. A couple of other elements work better, and we get some decent laughs, but the series’ recent slump continues here.
Virgin Territory: “It’s a day of disturbing realizations when Mitchell manages to ruin one of Jay’s proudest golf moments, Phil overhears something that may forever change how he sees his little girl, and Gloria stumbles upon Claire’s dangerous little secret.”
S3 rebounds nicely with the consistently good “Virgin”. Happily, the Phil/Haley thread avoids too much mawkishness, and the other elements deliver good comedy. Heck, even usual-weak-links Luke and Manny offer amusement in this solid episode.
Leap Day: “Cameron’s birthday falls on Leap Day and, with opportunities to celebrate so few and far between, the pressure for Mitchell to get it right is exceptional. Meanwhile, Jay’s machismo is in question, and Phil’s plans to observe the Leap Day holiday are thwarted by the girls.”
It’s not exactly fresh for a show to deal with the terrors of menstruating women, but “Day” still manages to bring cleverness to the topic. Phil’s pain delivers easily the best comedy here, though a few other elements do nicely as well. It’s not a great episode, but it’s a good one.
Send Out the Clowns: “The funeral service for a beloved clown mentor reunites Cameron with his estranged ex-clown partner Lewis. Phil is serious about landing a very important listing but gets trumped by a notorious bulldozer of an agent, Mitzi Roth (Ellen Barkin). Manny has a cool new friend, which makes both Jay and Gloria suspicious.”
As much as I dislike Cameron, I find his annoying clown act to add weird fun to the series, and that thread pays off here; the opening clown funeral is one of the most hilarious things I’ve seen this season. The Phil/Mitzi thread delivers solid moments as well, and this ends up as a positive program.
Election Day: “Election Day has arrived and the whole family rallies for some last minute campaigning.”
I think it was inevitable that Claire would lose the election, as the series wouldn’t want to be stuck with her as councilwoman. Despite that predictable side, “Election” goes well. I especially like the tyranny of Cameron and Mitchell’s use of the speaker attached to their car; those moments bring out the best comedy.
The Last Walt: “Claire delicately helps Luke cope with the fact that his friend and their old neighbor, Walt, has passed. Phil takes Alex for some father-daughter bonding time. Haley throws an unauthorized party. Jay and Gloria go over to Mitchell and Cameron’s to have dinner with Cameron’s father.”
The Walt elements tend toward mawkishness, which is somewhat to be expected, I suppose, but still a disappointment. “Walt” tries for more serious tone; it’s not truly dramatic, but it lacks as much comedy as usual. That doesn’t really work, so this episode drags.
Planes, Trains and Cars: “The Dunphys are in the market for a new car and Phil makes a spontaneous purchase without Claire. Jay is determined to get to his high school reunion with Gloria and Manny in tow. Lily loses her favorite stuffed animal on a public metro train.”
After the lackluster “Walt”, “Cars” rebounds – but not a lot. It continues the recent run of semi-sentimental episodes and lacks as much wit as I’d like.
Disneyland: “During a trip to Disneyland, Phil tries to keep up with Luke, Claire’s shocked when they run into Dylan, Jay and Gloria disagree about what are sensible shoes for the day, and Mitchell and Cameron must contain Lily’s new affinity for running.”
I feared that this show would be nothing more than an ad for Disneyland, but it doesn’t become as puffy as I worried. Actually, the show paints the park in a mildly critical light, as it doesn’t hide the place’s negatives. It’s still a gimmick episode with another vaguely Brady Bunch feel, though.
Tableau Vivant: “It seems that everyone in the family has a bone to pick with one another, which spells trouble for Alex, who is counting on them for a ‘living art’ school project.”
With two episodes left, I hoped “Vivant” would take us to the end on a high note. It doesn’t guide us to a close in a great way, but it has some solid moments, especially when Mitchell and Phil have a confrontation at the office. Though not great, the program works.
Baby on Board: “Continuing their quest to adopt another child, Mitchell and Cameron use Gloria as a translator and leave Jay and Manny to look after Lily. Claire and Phil have a proud parenting moment when they send Alex off to her first prom… but it’s quickly marred by Haley’s shocking news of her future plans.”
As the season’s last episode, I expected big earth-shaking events, and those materialize – well, sort of. The program focuses more on significant character elements than most, which means it also turns more melodramatic. I don’t think the series handles seriousness well, and the number of changes on display become unrealistic. It’s not a bad season-ender, but it tries too hard.
Despite the less than enthralling nature of that finale, I think Modern Family enjoyed a good third season. It gives us good general character progression/development as well as more than enough comedy to keep it engaging. S3 keeps up with the high quality of prior years.