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'Modern Family' recap: 'We love the 'F' word'

April 14, 2011 |  7:42 am

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After several weeks of reruns, "Modern Family" returned Wednesday night with an episode that relied too heavily on comedic acrobatics, and not quite enough on the wit that usually makes this show such a treat.

For some reason, TV and film writers just love gags involving school plays. Over the years, the adorably catastrophic school play has become a film and TV trope. Inevitably, these fictional productions are far more elaborate, slightly more disastrous and probably a whole lot more entertaining than your average middle-school play. Cameron's magnum opus, "A Trip Around the World," is no exception. After sabotaging the Franklin Middle School's musical director with a few poorly contained sneezes, Cameron gets to take over the musical. He wants to scrap the old way of doing things -- "the same tired songs, the same drab choreography, the same tepid applause" -- and go for broke with a play that includes a guillotine and a Bollywood number. (Mitchell, noting the irony, says, "He focused it by making it about the world.")

To no one's surprise, Cameron gets entirely carried away, and his ambitions backfire. First, Luke's aerial wire malfunctions and he's stuck dangling from the ceiling. Then Cameron's plan to reveal the words "WE LOVE THE WORLD" goes awry. Luke is unable to perform his role as the letter "L," hovering, as he is, about 12 feet above the stage. In a panic, Cameron orders his stage hands to lower Franklin's "majestic insignia," a giant purple "F." Thus, Cameron's heartwarming expression of trans-global harmony is transformed into "WE LOVE THE 'F' WORD." It's one of those jokes that you appreciate more for the ingenuity that went into writing it than for the laughs it actually elicits. Still, I confess that I wish we'd gotten to see that Bollywood number.

The same goes for the other sight gag of the night, Phil's unfortunate redesign of the family's minivan. In an attempt to drum up business for his real estate company, the Dunphy patriarch outfits their beloved Sienna with a giant decal advertising. If anything, the set-up to this joke was even more Byzantine than Cameron's botched finale. Phil designs the ad himself (not considering how it might look on a car as opposed to a flat piece of paper), enlists his family to model for it and then writes some suggestive slogans next to his wife and daughter. The writers at "Modern Family" are clearly a skilled bunch, but they sometimes get too carried away with the mechanics of a joke. It's a bit like some action movies, when you can tell a director has focused so intensely on the special effects and CGI but has totally overlooked the story itself. The redesigned van does have at least one positive effect: Claire, who's worried that she's past her prime, gets more queries than Haley. (Shades of "Mildred Pierce"?)

By comparison, the storyline involving Jay's relationship with his brother Donny (Jonathan Banks) was refreshingly human, albeit a little predictable. The two brothers are close-but-not-close in the way that many, if not most, adult siblings are. They love each other but aren't intimately involved in each other's daily lives. And when they do show concern for each other, they like to mitigate all the mushy stuff with some sexist and/or homophobic jokes. (Example: "Get your prostate checked by a doctor -- not some guy you met on the Internet!") Naturally, Gloria, who can recite the names of all 29 of her cousins at the drop of a hat, cannot understand their relationship. Jay begins to feel insecure and tries to have a "real" conversation with his brother. It turns out that Donny has recently been diagnosed with cancer, so he thinks his wife has said something. He assures Jay that he'd rather stick to the pranks. It wasn't the most revolutionary plot ever, but there was something sweet and refreshingly earthbound about it.

It just goes to show you: Good comedy doesn't require aerial wires.

 Lines of the night:

"The best part about me is my family. And my teeth." -- Phil

"Why do you have to throw a wet blanket over my dreams. You know what I end up with? Wet dreams." -- Cameron

"That's funny because women are so inferior." -- Gloria

"Ruben hasn't had a bowel movement in a week. Don't laugh, that's how Elvis died." -- Manny

"We have a Tony." -- Luke

"And there's Frisbee golf ..." -- Claire, on why Haley should go to college

"More toast, Manny?" "Why won’t you call me, Emma?" "More toast, Emma?" -- Gloria and Manny at the breakfast table

"I think the word you're looking for is John." -- Alex

"Years from now, these kids will be talking about how I Sondheimized them." -- Cameron

"They gave us Jackie Chan!" --Lyrics to Cameron's song about China

"No intermission? What are we -- animals?" --Mitchell

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-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Even though Luke (Nolan Gould) is stuck dangling above the stage, the show must go on. Credit: Peter "Hopper" Stone / ABC
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