One of the generic tips to writing good television is to never set a scene at a table. The reasons given are that the actors are passive, it’s too chatty and there isn’t enough action. Challenging that rule, this week’s Modern Family episode, “Three Dinners,” focuses on three conversations set at three different dinner tables. Well, advice is to be taken with a grain of salt, because this episode proved that sedentary table talk can make you fall out of your chair with laughter.
The three storylines were of equal time and importance and never intertwined, so I’m going to break it up by dinner groups:
Dinner 1: Phil and Claire “casually” take Haley out to a restaurant, acting all chummy. But they have an ulterior motive: they want to broach the touchy topic of what she has planned for her future. To their joyful surprise, Haley has a plan, and a good one at that. Then she turns the table on them, asking them what their plan is after the kids grow up.
Dinner 2: Jay and Gloria’s close friends Shorty and Darlene are over for dinner. Shorty announces they’re moving to Costa Rica, and Jay is desperate at the thought of losing his best friend, but he hides it by behaving like a jerk. Gloria convinces Jay to get in touch with his feelings and tell Shorty how he feels rather than suppress his emotions.
Dinner 3: Cam and Mitch go on a much-needed restaurant date to de-stress and rekindle the flame—no wedding talk allowed and no Lily talk allowed, which just leads to no talking at all. After an awkward silence, they interfere with a nearby couple’s decision about whether or not to marry, and through it they re-discover why they themselves fell in love.
“Three Dinners” could have been a stage play, and it would have received a standing ovation. Save for a few moments, the actors never left the table. Because of this, the episode felt very classic. Staying in one location is hard to pull off successfully, but it forces writers to remain concise and simple. Alfred Hitchcock created some masterpieces using this challenge ( Rear Window, Rope, Life Boat). Another great movie that stays in one locale is The Breakfast Club. The success of stories with confined locations depends on how interesting the characters are. Through this set-up, something very new and deep is learned about the characters. It’s as if they’re in a pressure cooker, not allowed to come out until they’ve matured. So what do we learn in “Three Dinners?” For the first time, Haley shows that she’s not at all vapid or lost, but that she’s got some surprises up her sleeve. In a very touching scene, Jay has to confess how emotional he is over his best friend leaving, and he ends up crying on his buddy’s shoulder. Cam and Mitch have to stay at dinner until they learn to appreciate each other again. Finally, when all the characters have completed their arc, they are able to leave the location.
An episode set in one location also depends on good dialogue. Here are some of the best lines from the week:
Phil, commenting on the handsome waiter: “I’d kill to have those lips. I mean on me. I mean I want his lips on my mouth…he’s got great lips.”
Cam, attempting to compliment Mitch: “We both look very handsome tonight.”
Haley, saying that Jay really loves her: “Grandpa, who, by the way, has been drinking with me for years, because he loves me and he thinks I say funny things when I’m buzzed.”