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Second Take: ABC's "Modern Family"

Second episodes of new series are always tricky.

While the pilot gives both the network and viewers an idea of what the series will be encapsulated into a single episode, second installments are often hit-or-miss as they represent the everyday norm of the series: they're produced on smaller budgets with less time to write scripts, rehearse, and shoot. So when they work just as well as the pilot, there's a sense of relief for all parties involved.

Last night's episode of ABC's hilarious and heartfelt comedy Modern Family ("The Bicycle Thief"), written by Bill Wrubel and directed by Jason Winer, didn't stray into the pitfalls of the second episode curse, instead delivering an episode that was overflowing with humor and heart and serviced the characters in beautifully touching ways.

Given my feverish love for this series, I was curious to see just how the second episode would affect me and I'm happy to report that I am just as completely enamored of Modern Family after seeing the second installment as I was after watching the pilot, oh, about ten times. (It's worth noting, however, that "The Bicycle Thief" wasn't intended to be the second episode of the season. I'm not sure when we'll see the original second installment, entitled "Coal Digger," down the line.)

This week's episode once again juggled several storylines at the same time, with Jay attempting to spend time with step-son Manny as he talks about his Superman-like dad, Cameron and Mitchell taking Lily to a play group and attempting to fit in, and Phil attempting to teach Luke a lesson about bicycle ownership.

First off, I have to heap praise onto Ty Burrell. His Phil could be a stereotypical "cool" dad type but Burrell imbues him with just enough self-awareness to make him beautifully realistic and never strays too far into cartoon territory. Here, Phil finds himself captivated by a gorgeous new neighbor (much to the dislike of Claire) and learns a valuable lesson about not letting your eyes or bicycle wander. (The entire thievery lesson was hilarious and recalled George's life lessons on Arrested Development, albeit without the use of a one-armed man.) The way that Phil attempted to get one over on Luke came back to haunt him in several, hysterical ways, not least of which was when he had to grovel to the store clerk for insurance, run away from some vengeful youths, or explain to Claire just what he was doing in his beautiful neighbor's bedroom... or why he lied about it in the first place.

Once again, the brilliant Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson manage to steal the show, with a storyline in which they attempt to fit in with the straight parents in Lily's new playgroup by toning down their flamboyance. (Or, okay, with Cam dialing down his dramatic personality.) The look of genuine fear on Mitchell's face as he realizes that Lilly isn't "grabbing and scooting" added a layer of additional poignancy to this lovingly crafted series as it perfectly captured that abject terror or parental anxiety. Contrasting Mitchell's panic was Cameron's gleeful and jubilant dance at the end of the episode when he let go of his "straight dad" facade and became himself again, dancing with joy and showing us all how he makes his horsey go.

Fatherhood in its many incarnations was the underlying theme of the episode and the most emotional moment came between Ed O'Neill's Jay and Rico Rodriguez's Manny. After exchanging some heated words after their Gloria-enforced quality time went awry, Jay learns that Manny's father isn't turning up to take him to Disneyland but can't tear himself away from the craps table. Knowing that Manny will be gutted, given his undying love for his allegedly mythical and heroic father, Jay tells him that he won't be coming but does the noble thing: he pretends that Manny's father sent a limo for them and that, rather than going to Napa with Gloria, they all head to Disneyland together. It's a selfless act of paternal love that proves more than anything that, despite their differences, Jay does love Manny and will protect him, even from finding out that his father is a deadbeat. If that isn't a testament of love I don't know what is.

Best line of the evening: "I just stole a baby's intellectual property." - Mitchell

All in all, a beautifully realized episode of the best new series on television that continues to mine the rich tapestry of familial life for both laughs and genuine moments of emotion. As Phil might say, Modern Family, I tip my cap to you.

What did you think of this week's episode of Modern Family? Did it live up to your expectations from the pilot? And how soon will it be before ABC gives us what we want and picks up the back nine? Discuss.

Next week on Modern Family ("Come Fly with Me"), Jay reluctantly takes son-in-law Phil out to fly his new model airplane -- that is until a maneuver goes awry; Gloria volunteers to take Alex dress shopping; Claire has an unexpected heart-to-heart with step-brother Manny.


Wes said…
You hit the nail on the head. Best new show on TV. Last night's ep was hysterical.
Anonymous said…
The 2nd episode didn't live up to my hopes. Some good lines but the plot could be seen coming a mile off.When he bought the new bike it was obvious that the original hadn't been stolen,similarly it was clear that they were completely misjudging how the playgroup would judge them.

Good performances,but the script really isn't up to scratch. Either more funny lines or a plot and situations that actually surprise please. They could really do with taking note of some of the best British comedies for guidance.
Danielle said…
I shouldn't like this show - I'm not a fan of family comedies and I'm pretty sick of the mockumentary style - and yet, I laughed hysterically at the first two episodes. I think that, when it comes down to it, it's just fantastically made. The writing and editing are top notch and the cast takes it to a new level. It's definitely been the most enjoyable new show to watch this season.
Anonymous said…
it's mildly funny. i do not think the documentary angle works. it's unnecessary. it feels off. the show has enough laughs, smart laughs at that, but it still feels clunky in parts.
Anonymous said…
Really not liking this show, despite all the hype. There is not one character on it that I like. The "buddy dad" is so annoying. And the gay father who wants so desperately to fit in that he stifles his partner and freaks out over his baby daughter when she doesn't measure up to the other babies. The Colombian second wife who is so stereotypical it's sickening. I'll pass.
Vicki said…
Sad that I missed this episode this week. Even forgot to PVR it! The pilot was just so fun and refreshing, and glad to hear episode two was just as great. ABC's got themselves a keeper!
Unknown said…
My son and I continue to enjoy Modern Family. Unfortunately, I doubt NBC will pick up the back nine. Deeper shows such as this, Defying Gravity, and Flash Forward aren't usually given a chance. But sometimes they surprise; I was pleasantly surprised to hear they picked up Glee's back nine.
allisonhiro said…
skst - I think you meant ABC, not NBC. And Glee is a FOX show which was more than "given a chance" by the network, in fact it was so heavily promoted it has almost reached overexposure. Also I would hardly classify Defying Gravity or Modern Family as a "deeper" show, but each to their own I guess.

Regardless, I think Modern Family is hysterical, and ABC is too excited about the relative success of their Wednesday night comedy block to let it slip away. Back nine order is imminent.
Unknown said…
@Allison: Yes, I made a mistake and said ABC when I should've said NBC. (I use Windows Media Center to record everything, so I no longer need to bother memorizing when things are on or what network they're on. I also apparently don't bother remembering where in the OP it says what network the show's on.)

I do know Glee is on FOX. My "they" referred to that network, not to Modern Family's network. Promotion has no correlation with whether a network picks up a show.

Have you been watching Defying Gravity? The interpersonal relationships and motivations for the crew's actions are definitely deeper than, say, CSI: Insert City Here or Desperate Housewives. I'd also classify Modern Family as deeper in the sense that it explores (so far) people's motivations within society's mores (May/December weddings, gay couple adoption).

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