Modern Family, “Slow Down Your Neighbors”

I generally have trouble buying in when it comes to high-profile guest stars, particularly in comedies. The constant guest stars in Friends seemed to drag that series down in the later years and we all know the problems with 30 Rock and its constant stream of famous people adding little to the comedy or the plot. Gimmicks like superstar stunt casting seem to work the least successfully in sitcoms, that’s just the way it is.

However, even though I knock Modern Family too much according to some of you on Twitter (I’m trying to be better at that, by the way) one of the things I think the series has done really well is integrate its guest stars. I guess being away from New York (Friends) and the media (30 Rock) allows this series to also stay away from having actors play themselves or even make nods to the famous personas. Edward Norton, Elizabeth Banks and Benjamin Bratt were well-integrated last season somehow the series made Nathan Lane funny and not annoying for the first time in a long time earlier this season. Modern Family knows how to do guest stars.

With all that said it is therefore not shocking that James Marsden and to a lesser extent Jami Gertz fit pretty damn well into the Family universe. The series has been smart to recruit or bring on high-profile actors who A.) are actually decent actors and/or B.) don’t have such larger off-screen personas so that they can slip into a quick, small role with relative ease. Most people recognize James Marsden, but it’s not like he’s Brad Pitt coming on to an episode of Friends or Jennifer Aniston coming on to an episode of 30 Rock or even Cougar Town.

Thus, Marsden’s little bit here as a homeless hippy kind of dude living in Lily’s princess castle works relatively well. It’s not as if Marsden is the stand-out performer in the episode nor does he get the biggest laughs, but he isn’t obnoxious and he doesn’t take anything away from the episode. A number of people could have played his role, but he does a fine job and he is believable as a charming wanderer that catches the eye of both Cam and Mitchell. And really, Marsden’s character serves to tell a story about the two of them and how they always seem to react to strangers differently. It’s the same sort of uptight vs. loose beats the series always plays with in reference to these characters, but it always works — and it does here as well. Both Cam and Mitchell get to be the fool here and by the end recognize they’re both kind of wrong and kind or right.

Gertz is obviously less of a star, but she’s surely familiar to most viewers from her recent time on Entourage or the glorious Still Standing and like Marsden, she has a nice little bit in this episode that more or less serves as a catalyst to tell a short and sweet story about Phil and Claire. Mrs. Dunphy is enraged that a crazy person is driving her sports car too fast in the neighborhood, but of course that person just happens to be Phil’s new client, someone who can help him become the top salesman of the quarter for the first time in eight quarters. Clearly, Phil is put in an awkward situation and that’s where we like him best. He tries to lie, it doesn’t work, but thankfully there is no big blow out between the two ladies in the end. A few times this season Claire has been something of a jealous shrill like Gertz’s character claims she is, but this episode smartly avoids that characterization. Claire finds out that Phil lied, but there isn’t a big deal made about it. The less big and obvious Modern Family is, the better.

Finally, the Pritchett’s have a fun little story of their own that doesn’t add up to much, but again, I kind of like that. Manny doesn’t know how to ride a bike because Gloria never taught him due to her random fear of being grabbed. There’s little substance to this story, but it also doesn’t try to riff too hard on stereotypes or make some grand statement. It’s simply funny that Gloria can’t ride a bike and it’s even more funny to watch Luke’s ingenious teaching method of shooting her with a water gun until she rides perfectly.

Guest stars aside, there’s something about Modern Family that’s undeniable, especially when it puts together small-scale episodes like this one. I find myself more annoyed with the series when it tries to comment on issues or social circumstances, but when it delivers beats like Claire going through the Jay Pritchett bike checklist before chasing down the speeding neighbor or Gloria being terrified about the random person walking down the street, I can’t help but adore it. This isn’t the best episode of Modern Family‘s second season, but it’s a fun start to 2011.

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