Halloween episodes, like any episode built around a specific holiday can be a crutch. Halloween is particularly tricky for comedies because so much humor can derive from putting the characters in idiosyncratic costumes and basically say, “Hey, look, it’s funny!” While that stuff is often funny, it’s always nice to have more.
Interestingly, both Modern Family and Cougar Town were more successful with the poignant, emotional moments than the broad comedy gags in their respective Halloween episodes. Of course, not all episodes are created equal and one ended up being much funnier, but in the end, both “Halloween” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” were effective and enjoyable efforts.
Modern Family‘s “Halloween” proves everyone who thinks the series is better when the families are all together right yet again, as the last five minutes are some of the best the series has offered up in a sort of weak season thus far. As each part of the family prepares for the big Halloween haunted house gag, however, there are mixed results. Mitchell dressing as Spider-Man to work, finding out that he’s one of the only people who did so and then scrambling to avoid getting caught is a wonderful example of taking a seemingly typical bit and pushing and pushing it until the character is ultimately embarrassed in a fairly hilarious way. Mitchell crawling down the wall is a good moment.
However, the other two stories didn’t really bring much humor, or at least didn’t have any pay-off until the final sequence. Gloria and Jay arguing over how she pronounces certain words and phrases felt like another cheap way of exploiting the differences between the two of them that had to deal with race. Meanwhile, Phil’s attempts to make sure he doesn’t do anything wrong in the future to randomly lose Claire, while slightly charming, also didn’t include a whole lot of laughs.
But in the end, the episode almost pulls it together. Almost. The arguments and stress of their individual days are affecting how everyone participates in Claire’s haunted house and again, and really, it still wasn’t working for me. However, once Claire blew up and admitted that the reason she takes Halloween so seriously is that she has sacrificed her family ownership over Thanksgiving (to Cam and Mitchell) and Christmas (to Gloria) so she just wants one holiday that makes her feel like she’s bringing everyone together. She runs outside angrily and it’s then that the episode kind of works for me, in the emotional moment between Claire and Phil when she realizes he’s always got her back and he realizes she’s never going to leave him. It’s the perfect example of how the series can tell poignant moments without the lame-as-hell voice-over and it completely justifies some of the moments that occurred previously.
I also enjoyed the button, where Gloria finally sticks up for herself in respect to people making fun of her accent. Except, I know that the series will just continue to use it as a crutch anyway, so, there’s that.
Thus, I’m glad that Family proved to me it could make an episode work without a great deal of LOL moments while still balancing the right approaches to their emotional, happy endings.
Cougar Town takes a similar approach in “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” only to even more success. I haven’t seen every episode of the series, but this is absolutely my favorite one thus far. The costume gags are hilarious without being too important to the episode itself and there is the usual Cougar Town character-based humor. However makes this effort so successful is that it’s absolutely willing to tell a heartfelt and realistic story about Jules and father Chick (the always-awesome Ken Jenkins) without it seemingly too suffocating to the rest of the episode.
One thing that’s been interesting about the first batch of Cougar Town episodes is that it’s quietly lacked any direction. Most of the episodes have involved the crew just sitting around, drinking wine and playing games, which is great, but at some point, there needs to some sort of development. I think. Sorry, I let my love of Penny Can distract me from my critical faculties.
Anyway, most episodes this season have been direction-less in terms of the macro level, but at the same time, jam-packed with jokes. And although there have been a few attempts at some character development based on stories that came before the recalibration, none of those beats have been overwhelmingly weighty or effective. However, “How It Feels,” while still not directing the series towards a specific point, proves that the series is at least interested in bringing in some different kind of stories and characters that don’t exclusively involve drinking and game-playing.
The story here between Jules and Chick is explored wonderfully, without being melodramatic. Jules doesn’t like having her father around not because he’s a bad father — because he’s a riot to be around — but because he cannot really relate to her on an emotional level since Jules’ mother died. And even when she pushes him to open up, he can’t really do it, so she kicks him out.
Then we know that the goofy-ass idiot in the bear costume bothering Jules at the bar is her father, but somehow, the episode makes it charming anyway, particularly by using the bear head as a way to cover up the crying in the final scene between the two of them. Again, Jules’ mini-reunion with her father at the end of the episode doesn’t necessarily change Cougar Town‘s direction for this season, but it suggests possibilities, something previous episodes lacked. Perhaps Chick continues to recur, or perhaps the change in the relationship with her father allows Jules to treat Travis in a different way. There is now proof that the season is at least interested in doing something, even if we’re not sure what it is yet.
This episode also succeeds because it’s a little less cluttered than the last few efforts. The Jules-Chick thread is centralized to the whole episode, and so it creates a few natural, small extensions from it — like Chick and Grayson playing music together — but it’s dominant enough that the other characters get to sit around and be hilarious, particularly with their costumes. Sometimes, that kind of approach doesn’t always fit, but when the series needed to slow it down and find some footing, it’s a smart approach and one that makes me more optimistic for Cougar Town‘s season-long arcs.