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'Modern Family' recap: The time traveler's wife (and kids)

September 22, 2010 | 11:28 pm

Philclairestep
"Modern Family" isn't your traditional sitcom, but at the same time, it kind of is.  Sure, the show's got post-modern touches, like characters who talk directly to the camera, but there are episodes that borrow as much from "The Brady Bunch" as 'The Office." The show's premise is clever, and so are many of its jokes--but there's also a commitment to comedy that's more elemental than intellectual.   That mix is exactly what makes watching “Modern Family” so pleasurable, and probably why it appeals to viewers and Emmy viewers alike: For every gentle snicker the show elicits, there are at least three belly laughs. Or, to borrow examples from tonight's episode, for every joke about Dijon mustard, we got to see Phil nearly strangled by his seat belt.   

When last we saw the Dunphy-Pritchett clan, Claire was driving her family to the brink of civil war over a family portrait. Claire's need for control is often at odds with her mile-wide sentimental streak.  This time around, Claire's contradictory emotions are provoked by the ancient, wood-paneled station wagon that’s been sitting in the garage for decades.  At first, she wants it out of the house, pronto, but once they begin excavating it from its resting place, the emotions come rushing back.  It’s irrational, but she’s attached to the old beater--if she can keep it around a bit longer, then maybe her kids won't grow up. 

Though Phil briefly toys with the possibility of building a time machine (“Until someone can figure out how to keep a wormhole from collapsing in on itself that’s just a pipe dream,” was maybe my favorite line of the night), he ultimately settles on the next best thing: Piling the kids into the car, getting some burgers, and heading to their old make-out spot.  

Things start out well.  The kids are behaving, and Phil is wistful:

Phil: “Wow, this place has really changed.  Time marches on.  See that Starbucks?  Know what that used to be?” 

Haley: “An orange grove?”  

Phil: “No, a Burger King.”

Naturally, the time travel does not go as planned, and a horrible, Rube Goldberg-esque chain reaction of events leads to—among other things—Phil spitting up his milkshake all over the dashboard.  If there is one thing I know, it’s that the sudden spitting-up of liquid is always funny.  Ditto the accidental destruction of cars. 

Another thing that’s always funny, at least in TV land?  Adults who are irrationally jealous of children.  For instance, take Gloria, whose undisguised contempt for Manny’s new lab partner/notebook co-habitator, Kelly, was a highlight of the episode.  In keeping with her self-consciously stereotypical role as a Colombian mother, Gloria views her Manny’s new romantic interest as a direct competitor for his love.   As such,  she’s ready to find fault with every inch of Kelly’s 4-foot-10 frame.  But--modern mother that she is—she at least tries to keep a lid on her contempt.  But with someone like Kelly, who’s sworn off transfats and endorses salty-sweet after school beverages, it’s got to be hard for a mom.

The comedy on “Modern Family” often lies in the difference between how one character knows they ought to act, and their desire to give in to less-evolved instincts. For Gloria, this means a knee-jerk hatred of her son’s would-be girlfriend that’s tempered by her desire to see him happy—and the knowledge that maybe it’s not very mature to be jealous of a preteen.   Of course, it’s funny watching her shoot daggers at a middle-schooler over a glass of chocolate milk, but Gloria's disdain is spurred by a feeling that—I’m guessing here—is fairly universal among mothers, Latina or otherwise. Point being, underneath all the comedy is a significant kernel of truth. The conflicts are real and relatable, even when they're cartoonish.

Another thing that’s always funny, if a tad dangerous?  Clumsy people wielding power tools.  This week, Mitchell and Cameron set out to make a princess castle for Lily.  Mitchell’s excited to relive his glory days as a set-maker for his college theater troupe.  Cameron, on the other hand, is petrified.  And with good reason: With power tools in hand, Mitchell’s like a bearded, friendlier version of Jason Voorhees, decapitating rose bushes like so many camp counselors.  Cameron enlists Jay to help construct the castle, hoping the two of them can keep Mitchell busy with other projects, like organizing bolts. ("But there are only six of them,” Mitchell complains).  Mitchell sniffs out the conspiracy pretty quickly, and, in an act of protest, finishes the project himself.  Too bad he also locks himself into the castle.  "There’s a little bit of me in that princess castle,” Mitchell explains at the beginning of the episode.  Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing:

Mitchellcastle

Some memorable lines:

- Cameron: “I don’t think I would be a very inspiring disabled person.”

- Jay:  “That was my Vietnam, and I was in Vietnam.” 

- Mitchell: “There’s a little bit of me in that princess castle”

- Manny: “We like to play six degrees of Francis Bacon.”

- Mitchell: “Look at us, three construction dudes!”

- Luke: “I used to throw up all the time.  Remember Buckety?”

- Kelly: “Wouldn’t it be easier if we had all our things in one notebook? I mean we’re always going back and forth.”)

- Phil: “Don’t apologize.  I love you when you’re human”

- Phil: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

- Phil (putting one of his "mim-nonic" devices to use): "He looked like the drummer from Foreigner, foreigners are from France, France rhymes with ants, ants ruin a picnic…what’s up Nick?"

What did you think of the return of "Modern Family"?  

--Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

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Photos:  Phil (Ty Burrell) leads Claire (Julie Bowen) on a voyage through time (top); Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) tries to prove a point (bottom). 

Credit: Karen Neal/ABC

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