Now that its third season is nearing the end, Modern Family has finally picked up its game. This week’s episode, “Tableau Vivant” was the funniest we’ve watched in weeks. It fired on all cylinders because, like the season’s high watermark episode “Leap Day,” the storylines emphasized the kooky tics of each of the characters and the conflicts that came from clashing personalities and opinions.
In other words, the show reflected the ups and downs of a modern family, without all the gimmicks (aka city council elections, dead neighbors and trips to Disneyland) of past episodes. We laughed because we saw the comedy in family dramas, seeing our own families reflected in the show—just with wittier, prettier characters.
In the first matchup, we watch Phil trying to write down thoughts on how to fire Mitchell, who’s been doing side work as a favor for Phil’s real estate company. Mitchell doesn’t need the work and has been a little lax—even sending back contracts late on purpose—hoping they won’t extend his option for legal work.
Phil opens the letter to Mitchell with a number of “I love yous,” prompting Claire to ask, “Are you firing him or proposing to him?” Phil knows that he’s a softie and not a cutthroat hatchet man. Without missing a beat, he then turns to his wife and wonders aloud if she wouldn’t mind firing her own brother.
Ty Burrell is outstanding in this episode as a loveable Gomer of a character. When he shows up at Mitchell’s house with coffee to fire him, his facial tics are insane. “I’m a stress blinker. What really gets me going in confrontation,” he says to the camera. The brothers-in-law take away very different ideas from their non-confrontational conversation. Phil thinks he’s fired Mitchell and Mitchell thinks that they just won’t renew with him in July. When Mitchell shows up at the office, some staff think that he’s the recently terminated, “lazy” disgruntled employee. Phil ushers him into an elevator, which gets stuck, forcing the two to be honest with each other, and we get to watch the banter between these two fine actors.
Claire is pitted in this episode against her own brother-in-law Cam. The two headstrong characters have differing viewpoints on the best way to discipline children. When Cam and Lily drop by to help Alex prepare for her living art display of Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting, Lily goes through the house flicking switches, turning lights on and off—in other words, annoying the crap out of Claire. When she tells Lily to stop, Cam says that they’re trying to parent without the use of saying “no,” instead, redirecting the child’s attention to other activities. And we all know Claire thinks that parenting method is a crock of poop.
In a sadistic, but funny moment, Cam gets his hand stuck in Claire’s garbage disposal as Lily makes her way around the kitchen to flick switches, including the disposal’s. Cam asks Claire to do something, but she says that she wouldn’t want to tell Lily “no” because it might damage her emotionally. The tension mounts and we can’t believe that Claire would go this far to make a point! Except that the disposal switch is on the other side of the sink: It’s both very funny and very sick.
The Manny with a conscience—not the Gordon Gekko from Wall Street version of late—is back, playing a great foil to Luke, who’s about to get a medal from the fire department for putting out a fire at the school’s chem lab. But what the boys know is that Luke started the fire by trying to create a new element: Luketonium. Manny points to the American flag in the classroom, talks about values and says that he trusts Luke to do the right thing. Not only does devilish Luke accept the medal, he insists that the ceremony take place under aforementioned flag.
Jay takes Gloria to his favorite diner and tries to get her to read the entire menu. She just wants soup, pointing to her bosom noting that “This doesn’t come from sandwiches.” He orders her a newly named sandwich off the menu: the Jay Pritchett, a turkey sandwich with anchovies. Maxine, the longtime waitress, seems to know everything about Jay’s life, much to Gloria’s disapproval. When the sandwich comes, the vitriol is ready to fly: “It’s like a fish and a turkey beat themselves to death with a pepper.”
Out of the major storylines this week, Gloria and Jay’s was a little light on laughs. They were bickering because Gloria was jealous of the diner waitress. The other conflicts worked better because you could watch as the characters each played up their weaknesses and go up against someone exactly opposite in their thinking. Jay and Gloria’s argument was just silly without being funny, and most of us get enough of that in real life.
By the time Alex’s presentation rolls around, in which she’s trying to impress the art teacher she’s crushing on, the entire family is on the verge of collapse. In the tableau, they’re supposed to be as still as possible, but the bickering begins, with people talking out of the corners of their mouths, letting the truths fly across the fake Thanksgiving table. It’s brilliant that the writers had the good sense to let the family just barely hold it together instead of falling into the usual sitcom free-for-all/food fight.
Sometimes, the best comedy comes from restraint, and “Tableau Vivant” held that fine line with aplomb.