Modern Family, “Strangers on a Treadmill” and Cougar Town, “The Damage You’ve Done”

Having a deep ensemble of comedic performers is almost always a positive thing for any sitcom (or drama, for that matter). Obviously, putting together a cast full of humor-producers is better than relying on a few lead horses because it allows the series to rotate the focus on specific characters, concoct new pairings and develop new situations that lead to all sorts of new laughs that might not have been though possible before.

Both Cougar Town and Modern Family find themselves in this embarrassment of riches. Every member of their fairly large casts is at least funny and most of them are downright hilarious. This is a good thing.

But sometimes, like in both series’ episodes this week, the excess of performers and characters creates a log-jam issue where individual episodes are just too full of stories that none of them really connect together or get their due within the 21 minutes.

With this week’s Modern Family, “Strangers on a Treadmill,” the problem is the lack of time. Thanks to the growing comedic chops of the Sarah Hyland (Hayley) and Ariel Winter (Alex), it’s great to have the two of them carry their own story and perhaps because that’s such a novel idea within the series’ usual structure, Hayley trying to teach Alex how to act like a real high school is probably the best part of the episode.

Moreover, while the spouse-swapping mediation between Claire/Cam and Phil/Mitchell doesn’t create a whole lot of laughs when the two Pritchett children are trying to dissuade their sibling’s spouse from doing something stupid, things come together successful when Claire and Phil go to the local real estate awards banquet and Mitchell and Cam have their little fight at home.

The argument over the bike shorts doesn’t get as tired as one might expect, and I appreciated that after “The Kiss” covered Mitchell and Cam’s intimacy issues, they’re able to kiss one another right after a minor fight, because that’s what any couple would do in that situation.  And while Phil continues to be a Michael Scott clone, I couldn’t help but smile (just as always do, damn you Ty Burrell) when he started nailing the jokes he’d been chastised for earlier in the episode.

With those three stories working really well, each could have used another scene or two, but because Gloria, Jay and Manny were stuck in a fairly terrible, half-baked story and the series doesn’t seem interested in sidelining any of the adult characters even for an episode, time gets taken away from the good stuff.

However, I have to give the episode credit for avoiding any voice-over shenanigans, as the final conversation between Phil and Claire totally served that purpose in the context of the episode and based on how things unfolded, felt earned. Anytime the series uses this approach instead of the tacked-on voice-over, it tends to work; the writers should take that as a sign.

Meanwhile, over on Cougar Town, the excess of good performers might not necessarily be the only cause of the issues with “The Damage You’ve Done,” but perhaps the writers sometimes feel like they need to service all the characters in one episode without thinking of how it all comes together. The plots on this series always feel scattered and random, but this episode is particularly problematic because none of the stories really have any weight to them, even compared to normal, frivolous-but-fun Cougar Town standards.

It doesn’t help that the big element in the episode — Grayson slept with Laurie before he got with Jules — comes from a portion of the series’ history that both we and the writers would probably like to forget. As someone who only checked in with the series periodically in season one, I barely remember this plot point and so to have it drive so much of the episode and to have the characters react it to in a more serious way than they usually do (this is a series with very, very low emotional stakes) felt weird for this new kind of Cougar Town. The reality show-style bits with Jules, Ellie, Grayson and Laurie were fun, but the whole thing still felt very disconnected from what we’ve been seeing.

And in a lot of ways, that’s how this whole episode felt. Bobby spends the whole episode mesmerized by a sword swallower, which though in line with his character, got a bit tired. One of Jules’ old flames from back in the “Courtney Cox sleeping with younger dudes” era appears. And Andy has little to do but get his nails painted orange. In short, not the most successful episode of this series this season.

However, things are pulled together surprisingly well in the episode’s final moments when after constant prodding from Bobby, Smith realizes that he isn’t mad about Laurie hooking up with Grayson because he doesn’t actually care about her in the way she cares about him so he breaks up with her, leaving Laurie crying in Jules’ backyard waiting for someone to console her. It’s a very touching moment, and again, one that doesn’t quite fit into how the series has tended to operate this season, but unlike the whole episode leading up to it, it completely works. Busy Phillips sells the moment with all sorts of gusto and even though their relationship has been fairly low-key, it’s totally believable that Laurie really does love Smith and she is truly heartbroken.

Both series have done better this season, but sometimes, there’s just too much talent to go around.

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