There was a time when “Modern Family” was one of the most creative and humorous shows on network television. Early in the series, we were introduced to characters who were diametric, yet lived in awkward harmony with each other. An elderly conservative white man and his Latina wife. A gay couple where one spouse is a clown (literally) and the other is a lawyer. A goofy husband and his stern, often forceful wife. It was inventive and had a universal appeal.
But that was then, and this is now. Not only has society changed greatly since the show premiered in 2009 (gay marriage, for example, is now constitutional nationwide), but the characters have, too. As “Modern Family” returns for its 10th and final season on ABC, one can only look back on those early years and wonder how the show fell into such a rut.
The final season premiere, “I Love a Parade,” was a disappointing beginning to what one would hope to be a strong finish for a once-landmark series. The successful formula the show followed in its earliest seasons — following three families individually, with their stories merging together seamlessly at the end — was almost entirely ignored. Instead, it felt as though the audience was watching three individual sitcoms that choppily cut back and forth.
The weakest storyline in this episode was the Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) subplot, which felt so scripted that I cringed. If you’re able to ignore that, in 10 seasons, we never learned of Gloria’s apparent love for July 4, you get treated to another rather pathetic run of “mommy misses Manny,” in which Jay and Claire (Julie Bowen) have to save the day by FaceTiming Manny (Rico Rodriguez) so he and Gloria can continue their tradition of eating pie and watching fireworks together. This is the epitome of the weak writing that has plagued the show for the past few seasons. If the biggest problem a character faces is that they forget to use modern technology, you can tell the writers are running dry on material.
Even Jay’s character was poorly acted in this episode. His run as “grand marshall” of the Fourth of July parade is predictably a disaster and not a funny one. His rudeness to an obscure old friend, Tom (Paul Bates), just made him seem bitter, and his inability to cut the parade ribbon in time for the marching band felt like a cop-out. That’s not to say there weren’t funny moments — one of the more witty was when Jay got his job as grand marshall because the person who was supposed to do it “just got #MeToo-ed.” But other jokes fell flat; Gloria’s comment about growing up in a Banana Republic store was juvenile, for example.
The Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) storyline was not particularly strong either, although one of the episode’s best moments was their miserable attempt to create a video showing Cam’s sister how much their nephew has learned in his time with the couple, which included Cam using the child as a puppet to play random notes on a small piano. Still, the presence of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons’s Lily — who, let’s face it, has grown into a terrible actor — constantly making fun of other characters has grown old. Her comments are pretty boring and not as sharp as they used to be — “are we saving our bodies for bikini season, ladies” is not especially motivating nor witty.
And it should come as no surprise that Cam and Mitch realized, in one of those excessively feel-good moments for which the series is now known, that they’re proud of their nephew even if his only talent is hugging. Whatever happened to Cam’s over-the-top personality ruining the day or Mitch’s pretentiousness?
The highlight of the episode was Phil (Ty Burrell) and Luke’s (Nolan Gould) attempt to win a hot dog eating contest. Over the years, Phil’s character has held up the best, though even in recent seasons the jokes have grown tiresome. He played his classically goofy self in this episode, going to extremes by dressing up in a hot dog suit to scare his son so that his stomach will expand. The two winning the contest was also predictable, as was Phil giving meaningful advice to Luke about failing out of college, but because of their more physical comedic style, getting through their storyline felt more relaxed and less artificial.
“I Love a Parade” also fell into the show’s classic resort to extremes. Claire joining Alex in being lazy and forgetting the entire month of June was so unrealistic that it became hard to take their whole plot seriously. Sometimes, when characters deviate from their traditional way of behaving, it can be refreshing, but type-B Claire is just too unbelievable.Julie Bowen has often been criticized for overacting as Claire throughout the years; this episode was no exception.
And there isn’t much to be said for Haley’s (Sarah Hyland) plot, either. Meeting with Dylan (Reid Ewing)? Really? It’s been ten years, “Modern Family.” Let’s try a little character development — no one is that shallow.
“I Love a Parade” was in the weaker register of “Modern Family” episodes. For the sake of the show’s legacy, it needs to return to the complex, intertwining storylines of earlier seasons, such as Season 6’s “Las Vegas.” Otherwise, all it will leave behind is a feel-good memory.