Modern Family is a mockumentary style sitcom about one extended family living in suburban California. It is the ultimate kind of comfort television, adored for its silliness and unrelenting optimism. I started watching the show when it was in its seventh season (admittedly just so that I’d have something to talk about with a guy I liked) but have since gone back to watch it all from the beginning. Not only are they kind of addictive, I feel that sitcoms don’t get enough credit for the level of storytelling they provide. Modern Family, among others, excels in the art of physical comedy and farce. This scene—the final act of Season 9 Episode 18 ‘Daddy Issues’, which I will call the Everything Mop scene—typifies this.
“The perfect gift has three elements: not something you buy for yourself; takes you on an emotional journey; that journey is on a ship…showmanship.”
The day is Phil and Claire’s anniversary, and the scene begins with a blindfolded Phil being led by Claire towards their old apartment. It cuts to a talking head where Phil laments the excellence of this surprise—Claire’s gift of a nostalgic candlelit dinner, complete with the food and music they used to enjoy together, is perfect. Meanwhile, we are expecting Phil’s gift to be a disaster (novelty key-chain anyone?). But when Claire’s romantic plans are foiled by noisy neighbours, burnt fish sticks, and a burst pipe, it is Phil’s gift—the “Everything Mop”, “it mops, dusts, squeegees, and lights up”—that brings the night back from this state of entropy.
“Not Something You Buy For Yourself”
What I think Phil means by “not something you buy for yourself” is that the perfect gift is indulgent or unexpected, preferably both. Fundamentally, comedy is about happy endings (in the classical sense of the genre, this is the criterion that separates it from tragedy) and these happy endings are automatically indulgent. The world of Modern Family is borderline fantasy, because of how things always work out for the best—the Everything Mop scene is no different. What are the chances that Phil bought a gift that could fix a broken mixtape and scare away raccoons? It is the way that everything comes together perfectly (especially in contrast to how wrong it was going) that makes this scene indulgent and so enjoyable. Furthermore, this is an unexpectedly action-packed scene by Modern Family standards, relying much more on action than dialogue to provide the comedy.
More to the point: it’s true that in theory Claire nailed it with her romantic and creative gift, but the best gift is “not something you buy for yourself” because it’s not something you can buy. The “Everything Mop” alone would be underwhelming at best; the object is merely an incidental part of the real gift, which is Phil himself and the way that he comes to Claire’s rescue. With quick thinking, he uses the “Everything Mop” to put out the fire, fix the pipe, scare off the invading wildlife, and silence the noisy neighbours—it’s bizarre, but somehow quintessentially Phil. And it is true that (for me at least) the action of this scene is surpassed in delight by the final image of the couple surrounded by the wreckage and just enjoying each other’s company, making it a gift to the audience too.
“I am the luckiest girl in the world.”
“Takes You on an Emotional Journey”
In simplest terms, the “journey” of this scene is Phil’s growth from failure to hero. At the beginning of the scene, we feel sorry for him—he is usually the best at buying gifts, certainly better than Claire, but this time he has failed. We want Phil to succeed, because he is the fun, tolerant, and irrepressible heart of the Dunphy family. In this way the scene has emotional stakes for the audience, making his ultimate triumph all the more satisfying.
The setting of Phil and Claire’s old apartment (which they lived in prior to the start of the show) represents time past. And I think this implies that most of the “journey” happened before this scene—it’s the journey of maturation, where love is no longer defined by the perfect romantic gestures (epitomised in Claire’s gift) that they would have enjoyed as teenagers. The whole point of Modern Family is that love is imperfect, and maybe the chaos itself is a gift. Phil and Claire have gotten older and moved forward with their lives since living in that apartment; life is messier now, there are fewer mixtapes and more raccoons…but the love between them still remains.
“That Journey is on a Ship…Showmanship”
The format that the Everything Mop scene follows is the sitcom equivalent of Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong…until it goes right. Up until this point, the episode was about how it was going wrong for Phil, as he struggled against a myriad of lacklustre gift ideas. At the start of the scene, he is so ashamed of having bought the “Everything Mop” that he “can’t even say it out loud”. Then Claire inadvertently gives him a safety net by asking him to withhold his gift until the next day—this would be the “until it goes right” moment, except that things haven’t finished going wrong.
The cascade of minor catastrophes that follows amounts to a climax that is literally elemental (the elements obviously being fire, water, and raccoons). The chain of set-up and pay-off (such as with the burned fish sticks and the open window—or more broadly with the whole concept of the “Everything Mop”) is highly satisfying. And I would argue that the mixtape is even more romantic in the end because it almost didn’t work.
I love this scene because it is an accomplished piece of comedic storytelling. Moreover, I love that even at this point in the show, when focus is turning towards the careers and love lives of the younger generation, there is still room to showcase the strength of Phil and Claire’s relationship. At its best, Modern Family is one of the most well-crafted and heartfelt sitcoms. The Everything Mop scene encapsulates the overall message of the show: even when disaster strikes and it looks like you’re going to die in “a wine fire surrounded by raccoons”, you can always count on the people you love to come through.