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'Modern Family' recap: 'It's not racist, it's satire'

November 3, 2010 | 11:13 pm


As anyone who's watched so much as five minutes of the show can tell you, "Modern Family" is no accident. The show's storylines revolve around minor domestic quibbles, like barking dogs and sullen teens. They're reassuring in their familiarity and, for the most part, timeless. Of course, the "modern" part comes from the diverse make-up of the extended Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado-Tucker clan.  But the diversity is only one part of what makes this sitcom so contemporary. Almost as critical is the show's irony-laden, politically incorrect sense of humor, on full display in tonight's episode.  

The writers of "Modern Family" have never been afraid of making some slightly reductive characterizations.  Gloria is a fiery Latina, Cameron is a melodramatic gay man, Jay is a an older white guy who likes to golf. The characters are well-rounded enough that these traits seem like personal idiosyncrasies rather than stereotypes.  But on an episode two weeks ago, Gloria made an off-color joke about Peru that has ruffled some feathers. For those of you who didn't see the episode, Gloria is exasperated at the way Jay stereotypes Colombia. She yells at him, "Here we go!  Because, in Colombia, we trip over goats and we kill people in the street. Do you know how offensive that is? Like we're Peruvians!"

I read the joke in the way (I think) it was intended--Gloria is upset that Jay would stereotype Colombia, but she does the same thing.  Apparently not everyone got the joke. Commenters on this blog, as well their unnamed peers in "Peruvian cyberspace," were offended by the line.  Though I welcome the conversation, the criticisms struck me as obtuse.  The butt of the joke was meant to be Gloria, not Peru.  I thought this was pretty clear, but perhaps it wasn't.

Given this minor hullabaloo, it's interesting that tonight, "Modern Family" once again waded into the dangerous waters that lie between satire and stereotyping. Lily is cast in a commercial.  Cameron is thrilled, and takes to the role of stage mother with glee.  That is, until it turns out the commercial is a wildly offensive Godzilla spoof, complete with caucasian actors doing cartoonish Japanese voiceovers. Even Cam, who scolds the commercial director for thinking that Lily is Japanese, is exposed as a minor hypocrite.  "You’re only interested in seeing these children as interchangeable stereotypes, not human beings," he says, promptly mistaking his own daughter for a different Asian baby. In case you didn't realize, the implicit joke is that white people think Asians look alike. But, as with Gloria's Peru insult, there's more than one way to interpret this joke. The commercial's director defends himself by claiming "it's not racist, it's satire."  The same might be said about "Modern Family," though I'm still figuring out the exact reasons why it's the latter and not the former. Maybe it's just that good comedy is always about that slight discomfort.

Another weighty theme tonight was Phil's emasculation.  The Dunphy patriarch's has always felt insecure about his lack of handiness, especially in contrast to his father-in-law.  Phil's perceived inferiority has been an ongoing joke all along on "Modern Family," but tonight, his disappointments were more acute.

Claire, his hyper-productive, multitasking wife, is bed-ridden with a cold, and Phil gallantly tries to take her place.  He fails miserably.  Phil can't bake, he can't figure out what's wrong with the smoke detector, and he can't manage to get to the gym to pick up Claire's phone.  Ron, the handsome guy from the gym, has to drop it by the house.  "Claire never mentioned she had a husband," he says.  

Making matters worse is the fact that Phil is failing at his own work, too: he can't sell houses anymore. Maybe I'm reading into it all a little too much, but the episode seemed like a semi-sincere reflection on masculinity. Phil's insecurities are so manifestly obvious that even Luke, his space cadet (in both the literal and the figurative senses) of a son, notices them.  After Phil has a disappointing call with a client, Luke asks,  "What happens if people stop buying houses?"  If only Phil--or, you know, anyone in America--had the answer to that one, we'd all feel a lot better.  

It was an episode that, somehow, felt even more "modern" than usual.

The best lines of the night: 

"Oh no, where am I going to find another husband who wears sweatpants to work?" --Gloria

"You care about germs? I’ve seen you kiss a pigeon on the mouth."  --Phil

"Oh, nothing. I’m just in bed with my mom...Stop freaking out, it is not coming true."  --Haley, on the phone with Dylan, who's had some inappropriate dreams about his girlfriend's mother

"It’s bumped out where the boobs go." --Luke, re: Phil's allegedly uni-sex apron

"Oh, sorry. I burned my lady fingers." --Phil

"So quiet.  It’s like Christian silence reading room."  --Gloria

"Hey Dad, I think I found a place online where I can sell this organ.  It’s called the black market." --Luke, clutching his Casio keyboard

"It’s not MGM, it’s a warehouse behind a mattress store."  --Mitchell

"Is that your college cheer-leading baton?"  --Luke, talking to Phil

Which ones did I miss?

-- Meredith Blake

Photo: Lily and a fellow child actor, played by real-life siblings, Ella and Jaden Hiller. Credit: Mitch Haddad / ABC


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