Episode 9: When a Tree Falls
By: Carlos Uribe
Modern Family is a show about three branches of a family.
What's interesting about When a Tree Falls is how it set up the point of each plot. A perfect example of this is the most obvious one: the Gloria and Claire plot. The theme of that plot is that it can be difficult for anyone to concentrate at specific times. This is especially true for Gloria, who is having a hard time focusing due to her pregnancy. It has gotten so bad that Claire is asked by Jay to babysit Gloria as she goes shopping. There's a small joke in the beginning where Jay tries to trick Gloria into buying that she's the one who called Claire. This entire plot is flipped around when Gloria and Claire are returning to their van. Claire is giving some lecture to Gloria about how she has to at least try to focus when a security guard comes up. Claire has been so busy watching out for Gloria's mistakes that she has stopped using it to think for herself. Claire has accidentally walked out of the store wearing a sweatshirt she didn't buy. This act of accidental shoplifting lands Claire in trouble but it's only because of Gloria's quick thinking that they are able to get out of it. The two characters have times when they're able to think but only about other people. Claire is smart about making sure Gloria doesn't make a mistake but it leads to her making one herself. Gloria isn't able to stop herself from making one but she's able to formulate a plan for Claire. This juxtaposition of their characters and their brains helps to reveal about their characters. Gloria cares less about herself and more about others while Claire is more self-centered. That's why Claire is able to look out for Gloria but accidentally steals a sweatshirt and why Gloria is only able to think of a plan when Claire is in trouble. This reveal is only possible because of the extenuating circumstances created by Gloria's pregnancy. The episode sets itself up as an episode where Gloria is going to act stupid but it becomes about something else when Claire makes her large mistake.
The Cam and Mitchell story plants the idea of what it's really about early in the episode. Mitchell is trying to put clothes into Lily's dresser but is having problems because it doesn't have any knobs. Cam had removed them in the hopes of replacing them but he hasn't finished the project. Mitchell has been reduced to using a spatula to open the drawer. This becomes more clear later in the episode when Cam is protesting in order to save a tree from being cut down. He gets a call from his stage production where he's an understudy to tell him that the lead is sick and they need him. He ditches but he has to get Mitchell to continue the protest without him. Once again, this is Cam starting something and not finishing it. Mitchell is forced to deal with Cam's inability to commit to something for long. Mitchell is only willing to sit in that tree for so long which forces Cam to go back after the production and take over the protest. In this way, Cam is only able to finish because he has a partner that is willing to be by his side. Without Mitchell, the tree would have been cut down and they would have lost a special spot that means so much to their family. This was a plot that had the least amount of laughs, at least until Cam shows up in a cat costume and the show mines that for all it's worth, but it worked the best because of that seed in the beginning.
What's really impressive is the Phil and Jay story. It actually starts out seeming like it's going to be a Manny and Luke story. A kid from their class is having a sports-themed birthday party. Luke is excited because he's athletic but Manny feels out-of-place. Just when you think it's going to be about that, it actually becomes about Jay. Jay is pressured into staying at the party but he doesn't feel like he belongs with any of the dads there. He overcompensates by telling embarrassing stories about Phil. It isn't until after Phil takes out his anger on Jay that Jay is able to articulate his problem. He's worried about fitting in with the other dads, especially with the fathers he'll have to deal with in ten years because of his latest child. The entire theme is set up with Manny and Luke. What is Manny's problem? Fitting in at the party. What is Jay's fear? Not fitting in. Jay's fear is therefore externalized with Manny before the plot even starts. The episode begins by planting ideas with the viewers before it even begins the actual narrative.
When a Tree Falls isn't the funniest episode Modern Family but it's still a solid one simply because it is experimenting with form. Most busy Modern Family episodes like to set up the plot and the theme before the opening titles come up but this episode was more willing to wait before developing any plots. The series doesn't have the usual frantic pace it usually has but it does allow the show to develop each plot more naturally rather than trying to force each development. If this series can have episodes that follow this form while being as funny as this show can be then Modern Family would be taking a step in the right direction in being more consistent and actually regaining the reputation that the first season got.
There's a small plot where Alex tries to take an embarrassing picture of Haley only to have her plan completely backfire. Alex learns a valuable lesson about trying to make cute girls look bad.