Recap and review of Modern Family – Season 4 Episode 8 – Mistery Date
Modern Family has been having an excellent fourth season so far, using character conflicts to create solid comedy and resonant emotional beats. However, “Mistery Date” ultimately proves to be the season’s first real misstep, since it relies on discordant character pairings to create a sense of conflict that isn’t really there. The episode is still funny, and that’s really what I’ve come to expect from Modern Family, but this show is usually so much more than just funny, so this came across as something of a disappointment.
“Mistery Date” gets varying degrees of comedic mileage out of several different pairings:
-Claire (Julie Bowen) and Alex (Ariel Winter), who are out of town attending a history bee Alex is competing in.
-Luke (Nolan Gould) and Manny (Rico Rodriguez), who accompanied Claire and Alex in order to visit the waterpark in the hotel annex.
-Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who are out running errands, as Mitchell needs to keep Jay busy while painters renovate the nursery in his house.
-Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who spend the day together for the same reason.
-Phil (Ty Burrell) and one of Cam’s friends, Dave (Matthew Broderick), who meets Phil at the gym and assumes Phil is asking him out on a date.
The best Modern Family gags profit by long strings of misunderstanding. The night’s best storyline, between Phil and Dave, thrives on how the inherently silly conflict is predicated on Dave never coming out and saying what he feels. He tries, but a series of comical misunderstandings seem to dissuade Dave from going all the way. He tries to make a move on Phil, but Phil, speaking out loud to the football game they’re watching, says “That’s too close.” Dave tries again at the same time the coach calls for a “Time out”, which Phil vocalizes, leading Dave to think he’s crossed the line. There’s even a great callback to the trouble the Dunphys had last season in syncing Phil’s iPad with all the appliances in the house, as Phil tries to turn on the TV and accidentally turns on the fireplace and the stereo, with accompanying porno-jazz music. The punchline at the end of the episode, with Phil finally realizing, as he walks up the steps, that Dave misinterpreted the nature of their get-together, is remarkable, primarily on the strength of Ty Burrell’s comedic timing. It’s easily the episode’s best plotline.
As for the rest of the episode, second place would probably go to Manny and Luke’s storyline. At the hotel, a cute girl smiles at Manny as she walks by. Manny overheard her friends talking about a bar mitzvah, and so Manny decides that he and Luke are going to infiltrate each of the three bar mitzvahs being held at the hotel. Luke slowly acclimates to Yiddish culture, adopting a fondness for latke (“P.S. They’re hash browns!”), while Manny gradually despairs of ever finding the girl. However, he finds her just as he and Luke are getting kicked out by security for trespassing at the very last of the three parties. The resolution is sweet, with Manny telling the girl (whose red-dressed friends part like The Red Sea for him) that they should make the most of this moment together, allowing it to stand as a symbol for all that could have been if he’d found her earlier. They retire to a photobooth, and though the episode’s tag shows that the girl ultimately wasn’t as into Manny as he was into her, Luke takes the girl’s place, providing a funny little montage of images that illustrates Manny and Luke’s budding friendship (even though Manny is, technically, Luke’s uncle).
The rest of the episode doesn’t fare nearly as well as these two plotlines. Mitchell tries to avoid the compulsion to get Jay to admit to whatever problems he’s having, since Mitchell can tell that something is clearly bothering his father. At a baby store, for instance, Mitchell notices Jay speaking with a doctor friend who’s clearly a shrink, and surmises that his father is getting professional help for some larger emotional issue. Most of the laughs in this plot come from Mitchell’s appropriation of a Charlie Brown analogy, stating that he refuses to “kick the football” (i.e., take the bait, and fall headlong into his father’s misogynist criticisms), but ending up playing the Charlie Brown role anyway (“Good grief!”). After engaging in some standard teasing with his son, Jay finally admits that he’s upset because his last bastion of peace, quiet, and freedom in the house — his office — is being turned into a nursery for the new baby. It shows that while Jay is excited, in his own way, for the arrival of his new child, he still has that lingering Pritchett-esque desire for peace and quiet. It’s not going away, but he’s learned to accept that this is his life now, and he doesn’t seem to mind it. That counts as real growth for Jay, who too often, it seemed, would veer into “curmudgeonly old man” territory, which Ed O’Neill can do extremely well, but which isn’t as nuanced a character as the “family man” Jay.
As for Cam, the biggest laugh of his plot with Gloria doesn’t come from the increasingly tedious ways he tries to keep Gloria from going to the nursery (since his painters are still working on the mural), but in the gradual revelation of the mural he had painted on the wall, which both Gloria and Jay, surprisingly, happen to like. A lot. It’s a painting that is reminiscent of the mural on the wall in Lily’s room back at Cam and Mitchell’s house, a ridiculous angelic tableaux of Jay, Manny, and Gloria on a bed of heavenly clouds. It’s the best visual of the episode, and it’s kind of touching that Gloria equates the painting with Cam: vibrant and full of life, and love. And really, the plotline isn’t as bad as I’m making out, particularly because it doesn’t take up as much space as the episode’s real groaner.
Yeah, I guess I’m back to being anti-Claire this week. I like her when we’re shown how she’s becoming more like Phil (her terrified realization that her enthusiasm over the hotel’s waterpark is scarily reminiscent of how Phil would react is great). However, I really don’t care for her when she’s in “overbearing, bragging perfectionist” mode. That’s not really Julie Bowen’s fault, as she’s outstanding in the role. But I feel the show should be finding other avenues, in its fourth season, that wringing conflict out of how Claire irritates the rest of her family. Alex is under a lot of pressure from herself, and feels even more taxed when Claire spends the first round of the history bee bragging to another parent about how Alex is the returning champion. In doing so, she completely misses out on Alex missing a question and getting eliminated in the first round. Cue Claire refusing to let it go, as she attempts to make excuses in front of the judges for why Alex got the question wrong, rationalizing that an ear infection caused her to mishear the question. This leads to Alex and Claire having the plot’s one good moment, a mother-daughter heart-to-heart, in which Alex acknowledges that her mother has good intentions, and Claire recognizes that she can be a grating, overly persistent presence where her kids’ successes are concerned. Maybe its resonance is due, in part, to the parallels I was subconsciously drawing between this storyline and the news about Ariel Winter’s tumultuous relationship with her own mother. Regardless, the moment resonated in a way nothing else in that plotline did, for me.
“Mistery Date” is probably the weakest episode of this season so far, but every season is going to have the odd misstep here and there. I’m more impressed by the consistent level of quality the show has been able to maintain this season, even throughout its weaker storylines. The show is arguably as strong as it’s ever been, and I doubt that one underwhelming episode will do much to turn anyone’s opinion against it. Modern Family is a show you either like or you don’t. For me, right now, it’s a series I enjoy, even if I occasionally find that some episodes don’t realize the full potential of the uniformly-strong ensemble at its center.