Modern Family, “Earthquake” and Cougar Town, “Makin’ Some Noise”

I’ve been tough on Modern Family this season, both on the blog and in discussions with friends and family. Though I liked last week’s episode, it still bothered me in some ways and the season premiere was particularly problematic and frustrating to watch.

But this week, I’m going to try to be more positive because despite my issues with Modern Family and its execution of the buttoned happy ending, I still find myself chuckling at numerous bits in every episode. Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the hate (especially during a period of odd backlash like the one that Family) without acknowledging the things a series like Modern Family does get right. You know, like making people laugh.

The set-up in last night’s episode is completely sitcom-y and artificial in that of course an Earthquake would occur right when certain members of the families need to be stuck in places where they are forced to work out some of their personal issues. With the knowledge of the title thanks to my DVR, I could see the beats being telegraphed a mile away before the quake actually hit.

However, this episode featured a number of great jokes and gags, and really included some nice moments for the characters that don’t feel as unnatural or forced as certain things have in the past. Of course the Dunphy household crumbles into a space of madness, but amid Phil’s stupidity (and he’s really stupid this week), the screaming match between Claire and Haley is completely believable, almost to a scary degree.

I think I tweeted something like this last night during the episode, but the Haley character is slowly getting more annoying and frustrating to watch…which is completely how most teenagers girls would act in these situations. The character is a total drama queen shrill, but I’ve known dozens of girls just like her and I think it’s that knowledge that makes me both uncomfortable and amused by her representation.

Meanwhile, the other two family units were just flat-out funny this week. Cam and Mitchell in costume is always good for a laugh (particularly when accentuated with a “We’re gonna die!” ” I hope not. If they find us dressed like this it’s really going to set the gays back.” exchange), and somehow, this episode made Nathan Lane bearable. His Pepper character could have been yet another ridiculous, over-the-top Lane creation, but he is surprisingly subdued and interesting. I assume he will be making a return appearance later, and I’ll actually be happy to see that.

“Earthquake” was light on Gloria, but that’s okay, because Rico Rodriquez and Ed O’Neill simply killed it during Manny and Jay’s trip to the golf course. Their discussion about the existence of heaven and hell followed familiar patterns, but with Rodriquez’s line delivery and looks while holding golf clubs and cigars, it all works pretty well.

Cougar Town, meanwhile, saw its characters deal with the aftermath of a big moment as well, but instead of the artificial and singular earthquake in this week’s Modern Family, Travis’ move to college is a satisfying ongoing story that brings both the humor and the heart. And because the characters are all sort of scrambling to deal with this new status quo (or at least dealing with Jules dealing with it), the results are totally enjoyable and realistic.

Todd VanDerWerff suggested in his write-up of this episode that this series is really interesting because of how generally unlikable Jules is, even when the series tries to pretend she isn’t and I agree with that wholeheartedly. There is an assumption of everylady to Jules since she’s played by the super-likable Courtney Cox and because she’s the center of the story at almost all times.

But in reality, Todd’s right, Jules is insufferable. She’s been annoying, controlling and kind of crazy in all three of this season’s episodes: In the premiere, Grayson had to get away from her smothering attitude, last week, Travis had to do the same. Here, without Travis around, Grayson’s thrown back into the fire and he’s so frustrated and perhaps even a little terrified (in the way people in sitcoms are terrified) that he has to convince everyone else in the group to support Jules’ odd cul-de-sac neighborhood watch crew. And eventually, she creeps out her son at his new school and refuses to see that any of her actions are remotely wrong, or even weird.

What’s interesting is how well the series works with this dynamic and makes it something of the norm. Usually it’s fine for sitcom characters to weird and quirky, but they still have to be obvious likable. Jules is not, but somehow individual episodes put her into specific situations where her bad qualities can be flipped for comedic value without completely undermining her as a lead or a real, believable mother and partner.

Part of how that works is that the rest of the people in the group tend to be or at least act jaded, sarcastic or stupid, so even when Jules acts like an overbearing shrill, it can be played off as “over-eager” or “caring” without too much work. Grayson and Ellie can roll their eyes, Laurie can looked confused and then the comedy bits come in and the episode moves on. It’s an odd dynamic and only so when you really think about it intently, but it’s something I’ll try to keep my eyes out for in the future.

Otherwise, like Modern Family, Cougar Town turned in a fine and mostly funny episode from start to finish this week. Individual episodes seem to be able to get away with little plot, and this effort’s focus on the neighborhood watch creates a surprising amount of comedic moments, particularly when glow sticks are involved. The cast is just so talented that they can be given a fairly thin set-up and a prop and quickly turn it into a moment where Ian Gomez is making Predator references.

And sometimes, it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy the comedies for what they can do, instead of really taking them to task for what they don’t do. This is one of those times.

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