Modern Family: “Boys’ Night”

Modern Family: "Boys' Night" - Nathan Lane, Ed O'Neill
 It’s long been apparent that Modern Family embraces vintage sitcom tropes unashamedly, and earns its living off stuffing those tropes with really funny gags. Anytime you hear of a frightening next door neighbor, for instance, you can be sure he’ll be revealed as a big ol’ softie in the end (in TV taxonomy, this species is known as guest-starrus Boo-Radleyus.) And from the moment Haley uttered the word “babysit,” not a viewer in America couldn’t have predicted to the letter where that storyline would go.
So each week, it’s up to the quality of the jokes and the believability of the characters to inject life into the show. “Boys’ Night” wasn’t one of Modern Family’s funnier episodes, and I’m not sure how well any of the three stories hung together, but it still delivered a bunch of solid, if isolated, character moments.It makes perfect sense that Luke would be unfazed by the prospect of meeting a creepy neighbor that Phil describes, in the strongest language he can muster, as “not a nice person.” And it also makes perfect sense that pairing his special brand of sweet obliviousness with the expert curmudgeonry of guest star Philip Baker Hall (who will always be Seinfeld‘s Inspector Bookman to me) would have delightful results.

Their scene was such a treat, in fact, that I worried it would amount to nothing more than a springboard for The Misadventures of Phil & Claire. (Promising storylines about the Dunphy children often wind up that way; see Alex’s over-stressing in “Our Children, Ourselves.”) I jotted down just such a fear in my notes as soon as the Dunphy parents began creeping towards Mr. Kleezak’s door. Luckily the focus shifted back to Luke and his new, odd friendship (which I really hope we see more of in the future).Jay’s story hit plenty of familiar notes too, although I was glad to see his crashing Mitchell’s dinner didn’t turn into a standard parent-embarrassing-his-kid-in-front-of-friends schtick. I sort of loved how naturally he fit in with the boys’ night, and how we didn’t need a sappy postscript to hammer home the father-son bonding that resulted. Naturally, it ended with Jay getting hoisted on his own petard, as Gloria predictably but amusingly sold him out when Pepper arrived for their record-shopping date.

Every scene of Haley’s adventures in babysitting could have come out of a sitcom playbook, and it had so little connection to the rest of the plot that it felt like the TV writers’ room equivalent of an “evergreen” newspaper article, something that you keep on the backburner and plug in anytime you have a little space to fill. But Sarah Hyland played her dissembling indignation well, about all you can ask out of a three-minute C-story.

And I enjoyed the way Mitchell undercut the hokey “family is awesome” voiceover/montage at the end. Those have become a Modern Family trademark, and it seems the writers are both acknowledging this and declaring that, no matter who it annoys, this is what the show is and it isn’t going to change.

Other notes:

  • This the first episode in quite a while where every regular got something to do – even if, in Alex’s case, that meant continuing her slow morph into a live-action Lisa Simpson, what with her fatalistic Jeremiads about current events (in this case, unexplained animal deaths).
  • Manny: “Quitin’ time – am I right, Jay?” Jay: “Let’s not make this a thing.”
  • “Are the movie rights available for that one?”
  • “I’m still growing into my tongue.”
  • “If something goes wrong we’ll just pop over to the Orient, grab another one.”
  • Luke holding his breath before entering Mr. Kleezak’s house was a touch of genius.
  • “That’s my favorite type of movie. That and anything set against the backdrop of competitive cheerleading.”
  • I want to hear the end of the joke about the Kraut with the limp.
  • “He likes to melt stuff! Like you’re so perfect!”
  • “He doesn’t know I”m this gay.”
  • Jay: “So what’s a guy gotta do to get a drink around here.” Mitchell: “Nobody say anything.”
  • “At least yours was gay, you mighta had a shot.”
  • I do love seeing Phil and Claire as a couple, and their scene at Mr. Kleezak’s led to two physical comedy gems: Phil shoving Claire into the house, and the two of them tumbling over each other when they wake him up.
  • “Oh, God, he’s seen my sexy dance.”
  • “Okay, Dad, I’m feeling really good about our relationship, and I want to hold onto that for a little while longer, so I’m gonna hang up now.”
  • “Get your affairs in order, people, this is the end!”
  • Those of us who watch Parks and Recreation don’t need any reminders how talented Rob Lowe is, Mitchell.
  • IMDB says Hall will be returning once more this season. I’m officially looking forward to “Untitled Episode #20.”

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, March 23, 2011.

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