‘Modern Family’ – ‘Princess Party’: The return of Fizbo?

Senior Television Writer
02.17.11 100 Comments

As I explained in my response to the Slate piece about the state of TV criticism, I stopped writing about “Modern Family” because dealing with many of the comments each week had become thoroughly unpleasant, and I’d rather spend my limited time writing about other shows that weren’t such a hassle. That said, it’s been about six weeks since the last time I wrote anything about an episode on this blog, and more than two months since my last full-on review, and last night’s episode seemed to encapsulate a lot of things that have been bothering me about the show this season, so I have some things to say on that subject.

I will also say right now: if reading a negative review of an episode of television you enjoyed causes you emotional pain, or even just diminishes the viewing experience, please do not click through and read this. This is supposed to be fun, dammit, and I won’t be offended. If, on the other hand, you’re genuinely curious for my opinion of “Princess Party,” and season two to date, and think you can view those opinions as simply that and not some kind of weird vendetta (again, please read this post, in which I address the conspiracy theorists among you), then by all means, follow me to the review, coming up just as soon as I disrespect party themes…

There was a time earlier this season where I was accused, not inaccurately, of judging each episode of “Modern Family” against a very high standard. Admittedly, it was a standard the show had set for itself in episodes like “Fizbo” and a handful of others. But I had seen what the show was capable of at its best, which made it hard not to find the preponderance of episodes that didn’t reach that level to be wanting. You can decide for yourself whether that’s a fair way to assess the show on a regular basis, but the fact is, here was a show capable of occasional greatness that in many weeks was a collection of a few very funny gags and a bunch of other things that didn’t really work.

The recent string of episodes, though, have come in below the B+ level that the show achieved most of its first season. They’ve been full of the kinds of tropes that have turned me off to most traditional, laughtrack-driven sitcoms in recent years: plots and jokes based entirely on wacky misunderstandings, characterization being sold out for the sake of a laugh and broad guest characters unrecognizable as human beings.

Now, most of the “Modern Family” writing staff – including the show’s creators, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd – comes from the world of traditional multi-camera sitcoms. It’s not a surprise that this is the kind of humor they’d gravitate towards. Even in the show’s first season, I said that a lot of the jokes had the rhythms of Levitan and Lloyd’s previous show, “Back to You,” but that the single-cam, faux-documentary format helped disguise that, and made many of them go down easier than if they were accompanied by braying guffaws from the studio audience (or from the laughtrack machine). 

But it feels like this season, the show has increasingly leaned on that kind of humor, and it’s become disheartening to see the series go from something I largely enjoyed, even if it didn’t usually live up to my expectations for it, to something in which the moments where I laughed were becoming outnumbered by the ones where I cringed.

Did “Princess Party” have laughs? Absolutely. I loved Gloria’s weird bear voice, as well as Cam appearing as a cockney Fizbo immediately on the heels of Mitchell’s, “It is amazing the freaks we used to date.” It’s sort of like I talk about the weaker episodes or seasons of “30 Rock” – these are funny, talented people in front of and behind the camera, and it’s not surprising that even a bad episode would have a good joke or three.

But lord, did so much of it make me wince. Matt Dillon seemed to be parodying Johnny Drama while playing Claire’s cartoonish ex. (The brothers Dillon more closely resemble each other when Matt does comedy, but this was so extreme that I had to keep checking the guest credit info to be sure.) And where I had mostly enjoyed Shelley Long’s first appearance as Claire and Mitchell’s crazy mom, this time her behavior was so extreme as to be annoying – and the brief human moment between DeDe and Jay was immediately sold out for the sake of the episode-ending catfight.

There were also instances of characters being nudged out of character for a joke, like the running gag about Luke’s very calculated cuteness, which suddenly made him seem as self-aware and old-beyond-his-years as Manny. And even when characters were in character, they were behaving as such an extreme version of themselves that I found myself disliking them. There is a line the show sometimes crosses in terms of Cam’s desperate need for attention, and he leaped over the line this week. I shouldn’t spend so much of an episode featuring Fizbo wishing that the guy who plays Fizbo would just stop talking already. And while Claire’s not my favorite character to begin with, an episode in which she is two steps away from a meltdown throughout makes her particularly unpleasant, even though she should be the sympathetic party given her mother’s behavior.

The discussion of the Slate piece had me thinking I might take a shot at reviewing another episode sometime soon, and when I saw that this week’s would feature Fizbo, it seemed like perfect timing. Fizbo comes back, I come back, and we’re all happy together. Instead, it wasn’t a very good episode, and was symptomatic of a lot of the show’s recent creative stumbles.

Given the number of shows I cover, I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or yours for me to come back week after week enumerating the same 3 or 4 complaints about this one in particular. If I feel I have something different to say – positive or negative – I can check back in. But most of the recent episodes have left me with the some frustrated feeling, so I’m going to step back again until/unless I feel something else.

What did everybody else think?

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