Tropes are developed and reused because they have been proven, time and time again, to be reliable setups and story writing shortcuts. There is a whole wiki devoted to these “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations,” and the documentation of the hundreds of comedy tropes alone shows that they are no new trend.
It’s understandable, then, that Modern Family continues to go to the same wells over and over, especially considering the traditional sitcom backgrounds of its creators, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. My question, though, is why does the show keep using the EXACT SAME setups and not execute them in any particularly novel way? It’s one thing to play with viewers’ expectations and put a new spin on a familiar device. It’s another to have a situation play out exactly as everyone would expect, and then do it again, and again, and again.
The “sustained misunderstanding” is a particular favorite of Modern Family‘s. Last night, we got it again, as Phil and Claire had a fight, but Phil had no idea what it was about. Phil’s pride and Claire’s annoyance at having to spell it out for him somewhat explained their inability to honestly talk about what was wrong, but the fact that they’ve used this trope almost every week since returning from hiatus made it difficult to look past. Plus, we had never gotten any indication that Phil’s behavior — finally listening to someone else’s advice, when Claire had been giving the same advice the whole time — was a reoccurring thing. Claire snapped because Phil “always does this,” but just telling us instead of showing us and building it up breaks a cardinal rule of screenwriting and is, frankly, just lazy.
And, really, every story last night revolved around a sustained misunderstanding, or at least a miscommunication that could have been easily solved. Sure, Jay didn’t want Gloria to get mad that he didn’t like her singing, Mitchell wanted to fix his mistake without Cam knowing, and Haley didn’t want her parents to find out about her scam, but it’s likely the end results would have been the same or even better if everyone had just spilled the beans and worked together from the start (except maybe in Haley’s case — she got lucky).
I will say that “Regrets Only” allowed for some good character combinations that we don’t get too often. Luke helping out his uncles, Manny spending time with his cousins, Jay going out with Claire: these are the kinds of things that make sense for family members who all live in the same neighborhood to do. Mitchell and Cam aren’t going to throw a party every week, but most of the activities were natural and logical opportunities for the various families to cross paths, and that’s one thing from this episode that I hope the show continues to do.
Until the end, I was on the fence about the episode. It reused a lot of familiar setups and then resolved everything not because it was earned, but because the episode had to end. Still, it had some good character pairings and some great one-liners (“When you get a massage, you sound like a Tijuana prostitute”). But then the voiceover came on. Jay just had to hammer it in that the moral of the story was that WE NEED TO LISTEN TO EACH OTHER MORE CLOSELY, as if it weren’t clear to anyone who had been watching for the last 25 minutes. The voiceovers have always been one of my pet peeves with the show, but they especially stand out in their clunkiness when they’ve been absent for a few episodes, and last night’s was the icing on the cake.
It is certainly easier to criticize Modern Family when I am writing about it week to week, rather than just casually watching on my own time. But in a way, I’m glad I am. A lot of people will say it’s just nitpicking, just a TV comedy, why can’t I just enjoy it? To that I say: Why can’t I expect a show, especially one that positions itself as a modern take on a classic form, to respect me as a viewer and not hammer me over the head with its messages? When a show has such a talented cast, why can’t I expect it to take advantage of that talent? Why do the jokes have to be recycled ones that we can see from a mile away? I don’t think this is too much to ask, and the reason I am asking it is because I really do like Modern Family. I just know it can be better, and want it to live up to that potential.
Bits & Pieces
- Gloria was far and away the highlight of the episode. Her karaoke was horribly awesome (awesomely horrible?), she got to cut Phil’s hair, and we know what it would take for her to kill you!
- It was a nice touch that Haley ordered Alex’s smoothie will all ice cream.
- I hope we get to see Cello Submarine at some point.
- “I do Jay, why can’t I do you?”
- “It is amazing what you notice and don’t notice.”
- “Happy Valen-birth-iversary…”
- “That’s the worst sound in the world.” “Is it?”
- “Coward! COWARD!”
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