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'Modern Family' recap: Trading places

May 12, 2011 |  8:26 am


The question posed by this week's "Modern Family" was: What happens when two partners, willingly or otherwise, reverse their roles? It's a cute and comically rich way to illustrate a more substantive point --  that being romantically compatible doesn't mean being the same, it means being different in the right ways. (And no, I swear, I didn't learn that from Patti Stanger). Or, as Gloria sums it up, "Maybe we are the way we are because of the people we're with. Maybe we just pick the people we need."

The emotional logic of the Dunphy marriage has always been abundantly obvious: Claire is the high-strung enforcer, Phil's the easygoing fun one. They certainly balance each other out, but Claire feels that she carries too much of the parental burden, that she always has to be the bad cop, so she mounts a spontaneous insurrection. She orders Phil to be the disciplinarian (which in and of itself is a pretty ironic thing to do), then dashes off to the go-kart track with Manny and Luke.

Phil takes to his bad cop role tentatively at first -- even asking his daughters, "So, how does this usually start?" -- but when he discovers that Alex and Haley have slipped out without actually cleaning the bathroom, his inner tyrant is unleashed. He throws himself across the hood of the car so that the girls can't escape to the mall.

Phil's death-defying stunt is motivated more by his fear of Claire than his own desire to be an enforcer, but that's incentive enough. I love the image of Phil, parked in front of the bathroom door, as Alex and Haley toil away on their hands and knees, like two Dickensian urchins.

At this point, he's taken the "bad cop" thing to menacing extremes, denying the girls a break for lunch and duct-taping their laptops closed. (Which, by the way, is a another nod to one of this show's favorite themes: the intrusive role of technology in contemporary family life.) Haley extracts a putrid clump of hair from the drain, and the girls react to the stomach-churning sight with high-pitched "Ewws." The highlight of the episode was watching Phil's reaction: He tells the girls, "It's only hair," then turns the corner, gagging in disgust. I watched it a second time and laughed just as hard. It's a joke that epitomizes this show's post-modern sense of humor. What's funny is the dissonance between what characters say and what they're actually thinking.

The result is that Phil is horrified by his tyrannical side. "I feel really shaky," he tells Claire. Likewise, Claire's competitive intensity and perfectionism quickly turn a fun afternoon of go-karting into a puke-fest. In the past, I've found the whole "gee-Claire-is-intense" thing irritating, but in this context I thought it worked quite well. It was a hoot seeing her try -- but fail -- to be the carefree partner. I especially liked how she had to drag Luke out of the kitchen. "Come on, let's go have fun." "Ow, you're hurting me!" he says.

Mitchell is the breadwinner in his family, and Cameron the designated caretaker. But when Cameron comes down with a hideous flu, Mitchell faces a moral conundrum: ditch the Lady Gaga concert and nurse his partner back to health, as Cameron would do for him, or sneak out while he's sleeping and enjoy the show. While this storyline was pretty forgettable the visuals it provided -- like Cameron's pile of snot-filled tissues and Mitchell's poorly camouflaged blinking necklace -- were nonetheless quite amusing. And Eric Stonestreet does a great "clammy," doesn't he? (It also just dawned on me that bodily fluids were a big theme on this episode. Make of that what you will.)

Come to think of it, Jay and Gloria's relationship, in some ways, has a similar dynamic to Cameron and Mitchell's. Gloria is the big-hearted, effusive one; Jay's the cynic. For example, Gloria has a habit of befriending forlorn strangers, and asking Jay to help them out in some way -- like, say, buying them corrective shoes. This time around, she brings home Guillermo, who's got a dubious scheme to corner market on the supposedly lucrative doggy-discipline industry. While this scene started out with lots of comic potential ("Are you aware that last year Americans spend $40 billion on dog training?" he asks. "Well that's not true," Jay responds) it somehow fell flat.

The show was setting up big, broad laughs -- Guillermo even had a mullet and "wacky" glasses -- but didn't quite deliver them, and Guillermo's "bad doggy biscuit" idea was indeed stupid, but not really ludicrous enough for belly laughs. Happily, though, this story line takes a sweet, third-act twist when Jay finds himself in a position where he's the one who can't say no -- to an adorable puppy named Stella.

And really, can you blame him?

Lines of the night:

"Can I just say, in Europe, this would be no big deal?" -- Manny

"Because I say so? And because I'm your dad? And I'm older than you ... and I call the shots around here ... right?" -- Phil

"All I want is when I go to sleep at night to be laying next to a man who is generous and giving. That man doesn't necessarily needs to be you." -- Gloria

“What's good about Luke's report card?" -- Claire
"He didn't lose it." -- Phil

"This is very confusing. At the movie theater she says I'm 11." -- Luke

“Handbags! Vacation! A home gym!” -- Gloria

"Sweet and sour chicken!" -- Phil

"I'm nice and I put on the sugar jacket." -- Gloria

"We haven't had lunch yet." -- Alex
"Neither have half the kids in Africa. Stop yappin' and get back to work." -- Phil

"I feel really shaky. I don't like being you." -- Phil

"Stick that hanger down there. It's either that or we cut off all your hair because that's what caused the problem." -- Phil

"I'm 12. I need limits!" -- Luke

-- Meredith Blake

Photo: Are we having fun yet? Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Luke (Nolan Gould) and Claire (Julie Bowen) head to the go-kart track. Credit: ABC