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'Modern Family' Recap: Treehouse

S3E7:In general, this week's Modern Family is stacked with high highs and low lows, and balances out to a slight step up from the series' recent output. It offers a better-than-average Jay/Gloria story and a worse-than-average Claire/Haley story. As always, Phil and Luke are gold. But the thing that resonates most in "Treehouse" is the show's insistence on using Cam's homosexuality as a punchline.

"If you let me keep that hang glider, those geese would have followed me to the wetlands." - Phil

"You would have died." - Claire

"A hero." - Phil

Claire starts out the episode in her normal state of frustration with her family. Phil is up to very Philish hijinks: building a treehouse as a (very) thinly veiled attempt to recapture his lost youth. But the main problem: Haley is having trouble with her college essay (a running theme in the series). Haley's dilemma stems from a lack of hardship in her life. Instead of employing introspection or anything else that Haley has probably never heard of, she complains about how easy her life has been and blames this lack of real experience on her mother. Claire responds by tricking Haley into taking a car ride with her somewhere outside of the neighborhood and then leaving her without a phone or money to get home on her own (the perfect fodder for her essay). The problem with this storyline is: we don't actually see Haley getting home. In between her abandonment and her frazzled storming through the front door, we see or hear nothing from Haley or Claire. This could have been a comic goldmine, and possibly some interesting character development (okay, maybe just a comic goldmine). But instead, the episode opts for some catty remarks between the Dunphy women that make the whole plot seem useless.

"I could totally be a womanizer." - Cam

"Or you could be someone who just stepped out of a machine called The Womanizer." - Mitchell

The plot complexity is at least a step above the Lucy-Ricky squabbles that Cam and Mitchell were having for a few weeks: Cam wants to prove himself capable of "passing for straight," so he hits on a woman at a bar (Leslie Mann), but worries that he has taken it too far when she wants to see him again. My issues with this storyline are detailed in my introduction. Throughout the episode, as you might imagine, there are a ton of jokes about Cam's sexuality, many of which structured around what his being a gay man "must" indicate about him. Now, I'm not certain whether or not I'm being too sensitive here. Cam's homosexuality is not being treated with malice—this is something of which the show is never guilty. But when Mitchell, a character we're supposed to consider intelligent and likeable, attributes Cam's supposed fragility to his being gay, it seems harmful. Especially since, as a gay man himself, Mitchell acts as sort of an authority on what it is "okay" to think about gay men. Of course, no one individual can be an authority on what it is okay to say about any group of people, whether he belongs to said group or not, but television characters do assume these roles in the eyes of their viewers. Thus, I think it a little irresponsible to have Mitchell tossing around stereotypes in such a generalizing fashion. I won't say a few of the more clever jokes didn't work, primarily thanks to Jesse Tyler Ferguson's delivery. But this is something with which the show needs to be careful.

"Honey! The dude in the tree is cool!" - Andre

The Jay/Gloria storyline is both benign and forgettable, so I'll gloss over it for the most part: Gloria thinks Jay is boring and passionless because he won't take her out salsa dancing like returning character Shorty (Chazz Palminteri) does with his ladyfriend Darlene (Jennifer Tilly, who is as Jennifer Tilly as ever in this role). The truth is: Jay can't dance, and is self-conscious about this. First, he asks Manny to teach him, but this amounts to naught. So, he takes a "drug" offered to him by Mitchell to loosen up—success. Of course, the drug is a placebo (Baby Aspirin), but anyone who knows Mitchell should guess this right away. Moving right along to what is, unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the episode: the Phil/Luke story.

The magic duo has both minimal screen time and a lack of particularly memorable lines, but their characters are so much more rich than anything else on the show. Phil forces a vacant Luke into the exploit of building a treehouse. In truth, Phil is feeling like he has lost his youth and no longer has the sort of friendships he did when he was a child who could just call to the other neighborhood kids to run out and play. It's actually legitimately sad when Phil begins to reveal his true intentions. Eventually, Luke bails on Phil out of frustration—and a sense of doom surrounding the project—leaving his dad stuck up in the tree. But Phil catches the eye of a neighbor, Andre (Kevin Hart), who, despite having lived right over the fence for eight years, has never met Phil. It's a somewhat touching moment when Phil realizes he is not actually the man-without-a-country he assumed himself to be. Andre is in the same boat: he immediately jumps onboard with the treehouse project, channeling the same sensibilities Phil had when he pioneered it. The episode closes with a promise of Phil/Andre storylines to come, which seems like good material for comedy. Two adult Phils is even more destructive than one, and this might free Luke up to spread some of his glory to another pairing. Manny perhaps? I've always appreciated the two of them working together.

I am still a bit torn on the Cam/Mitchell issue. Am I missing the point of all these gay jokes? Are they simply there to illustrate affable characters with human flaws, living a funny but normal lifestyle? I'm not unwilling to accept that I might be simply not getting it, but it seems to be that the show is just taking the easy route to comedy, at the expense of a value it claims to embrace.

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