The cast of "Modern Family" is universally strong, but among the ensemble are what you might call a few "ball hogs" -- performers who get more of the good lines and who deliver them with such aplomb that we can't exactly hold it against them. And yes, I'm talking about Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara. But this week, in a refreshing change of pace, it was little Nolan Gould's chance to shine as Luke.
I've always been partial to his character, a spacey little oddball who doesn't conform to any sitcom kid conventions -- he's neither precocious nor cloyingly cute nor an allergy-plagued nerd. He is weird in a way that's difficult to classify, but which borders ever so slightly on "creepy." You're never quite sure if he'll grow up to be a serial killer or a kindergarten teacher, and it's this mildly unsettling quality that I enjoy. (Something else I enjoy: the name "Nolan Gould," which evokes visions of a 65-year-old wearing a cravat and cradling a brandy snifter, but that's another story.) So it's nice to see Luke take center stage this week, as he befriends Mr. Kleezak. Played by the inimitable Phillip Baker Hall, Mr. Kleezak -- or "Walt" -- is, unlike Luke, a character straight out of Central Casting. He's the Crotchety Old Neighbor, an archetype that dates back at least to Mr. Wilson from "Dennis the Menace."
One of the things that works well on "Modern Family" is that it strikes a healthy balance between familiar sitcom conventions and a more ironic sensibility. So although the Grumpy Old Neighbor/pesky little kid pairing is not exactly trailblazing, at least we've got Luke around to say things like "We have that in our house, but we don't need tanks," regarding Walt's oxygen supply. Now, it would have been nice if we'd gotten to see more of these two interact. I'm hoping that Walt is here to stay, not just because of his sweet friendship with Luke but because it would be nice to broaden the Dunphys' universe a bit. "Modern Family" is not a serial comedy -- each episode is largely self-contained. The same themes pop up from week to week, but story lines are always resolved within 22 minutes, and there are few recurring characters outside the extended family.
In this way, it's a pretty classic sitcom, unlike, say "Arrested Development," the show that "Modern Family" is so frequently compared to, which used a serial format and featured a dizzying array of secondary characters. The Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgados feel hermetically sealed in their generic So-Cal world. Like the the astroturf lawn on "The Brady Bunch," this is a dead giveaway that this show is "not real." Again, this is mostly fine -- we don't really want sitcoms to reflect real life -- but sometimes it's like you can smell the paint drying on set. Or, to put it another way, while the Bluths lived in a model home, it sometimes feels like the Dunphys live in one. In any case, a few recurring characters -- other than Pepper, that is -- could inject some vitality into the show.
Speaking of Pepper, the other major story line this week revolved around Mitchell's relationship with Jay. I appreciate how "Modern Family" handles this subject -- it doesn't totally gloss over the tension between Jay, the uber-heterosexual, and Mitchell, his gay son, but it also makes it clear that these two love each other very much.
This strikes me as a very realistic scenario. Something that is more cartoonish is a group of grown men sitting around a dinner table sipping giant fruity cocktails and talking about their crushes on Joey McIntyre and Montgomery Clift. On one hand, it's good to see Cameron, Mitchell and their buddies actually express some sexual inclinations, even if they're couched in the context of boyhood crushes, but the gay caricaturing is way over the top.
Yes, the point was that Mitchell and Cameron really wanted some time with their "homies" -- i.e., their best gay friends -- but just because the show points out its own stereotyping doesn't mean it's not doing it. And this week, "Modern Family" doled out a few too many threadbare gay jokes -- Madonna, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" and so on. Really, though, I'd have been fine with the whole Crispus-Pepper-Longinus thing if it hadn't been for Nathan Lane, whose Bruce Vilanch-ian one-liners felt regressive back in 1996 in "The Birdcage."
So, what did you think? Save for Luke, this episode was a bit of a dud. Do you agree, or have I just turned into a crotchety old recapper?
Lines of the night (almost all of which came from Luke):
"No, she had to take Alex to the oncologist." -- Haley
"I left them at your uncleses' house." -- Dylan
"Keep your blinds closed when you're doing your little sexy dance." -- Walt
"Are you going scuba diving?" -- Luke
"He likes to melt stuff. Like you're so perfect." -- Luke
"I'm still growing into my tongue." -- Luke
"That was a fluke, and I can't slather that boring music in tartar sauce." -- Jay
"We were just concerned that you looked dead. No offense." -- Phil
"And just so you know, a lot of people think I'm adorable." -- Luke
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Nolan Gould stars as Luke and Phillip Baker Hall stars as Walt Kleezak Credit: Karen Neal / ABC