Modern Family – breaking down the comedic and dramatic points of episode 'Caught in the Act'
American sitcoms series can seem like a seamless string of pithy one-liners and daft gags but underneath the laughter usually lies a tightly-woven, perfectly-planned plethora of plot points, character development and comedy seeds sewn for pay-offs later in the script.
But how can aspiring writers match this? Or gain insight into the craftsmanship that goes into top series comedy screenwriting?
Dissecting a TV show by way of scene-by-scene or minute-by-minute breakdowns is a really helpful way of clarifying the comic and dramatic beats of a story and is a great habit to get into.
Sometimes pausing, jotting down and pressing play can be just as – if not more – valuable as reading the screenplays themselves.
Here Mandy News deep dives into Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning sitcom Modern Family to see how an episode is constructed.
We've chosen one of the most highly-rated episodes of Modern Family – “Caught in the Act” from season two.
But first here is some vital info about the show, characters and episode, for the uninitiated.
Modern Family is a documentary-style comedy series in its ninth season, following Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) and his family in suburban Los Angeles.
Jay and Gloria – Claire's Dad and his wife.
Claire and Phil – Jay's daughter and her husband.
Mitchell and Cameron – Claire's brother and his boyfriend
Haley, Alex and Luke – Phil and Claire's kids.
Episode synopsis (From Modern Family Wiki)
It's Phil and Claire's anniversary, and when the kids go to surprise them with breakfast in bed, they get a surprise of their own. Jay and Gloria's plans for a Vegas vacation are ruined because of a brutally honest email accidentally sent to Claire, and Mitchell and Cameron try to get into a new restaurant owned by a mom at Lily's preschool.
Here we go:
00.00 – 1.00 Gloria insults Claire's cooking in an email by accidentally sending a draft email she was writing to get out of bake sale so she could go to Vegas.
(This episode has an A plot, a B plot and a C plot. A and B will overlap causing conflict and friction – this is the B plot of the episode and this scene sets up dramatic irony within the episode, providing the audience insight into the events that will unfold between Gloria and Claire later on.)
1.30 – 2.30 Mitchell and Cameron arrange a playdate with a kid from Lily's school, who's mother is Amelia - the owner of a restaurant they can't get a booking for.
(This is the C plot, a standalone story that does not affect the outcome of the main story. Cam and Mitchell are fed up with going to the Shawarma place down the road, and want to go to the new restaurant that's opened up.)
2.30 – 3.30 It's Phil and Claire's anniversary, so the kids want to surprise them with breakfast in bed. On surprising them they catch them having sex, much to Phil and Claire's dismay.
(This is the A plot – the main drive of the episode and the one we will come back to most often. As established earlier, A and B will converge shortly.)
3.30 – 4.00 The kids react downstairs, Alex washes her eyes out, unable to get rid of the image. Haley stresses and Luke is wondering what they saw.
4.00 – 5.00 Gloria is stressing over Claire's receipt of the email – they try her on the phone and get through to Phil who tries to pass the phone to Claire, who says she too upset to talk, which of course adds to Gloria's anxiety.
(The audience is already savvy to the real reason Claire is upset – she was caught having sex by her kids – but thinking she has seen the email, Gloria assumes Claire is mad at her and heads over to explain the situation to Claire.)
5.00 – 6.00 Cam and Mitch have arranged their playdate and are doing their best to woo Amelia, who seems to like them. They feign surprise when they find out she owns the restaurant, and immediately tell her they can never get in.
(Obviously they are fully aware she owns the restaurant.)
6.00-7.00 She is about to tell them what to say when they call in order to get a booking but she gets interrupted by a phone call which she takes in the other room.
(In order for this plot thread to work, Amelia has to leave the room, as it gives Cam a chance to mess up.)
7.00-8.00 The baby monitor is on and they hear her being particularly aggressive towards someone at work who has damaged an item of value. Them overhearing how aggressive she is will affect how they react to the situation which rears its head in a moment.
Cam has accidentally stepped on his playdate bag filled with juice boxes, which he realises after Amelia leaves has leaked juice all over her pure white carpet.
(Clearly they cannot simply apologise as she is extremely short tempered and unreasonable.)
8.00 – 9.15 Claire and Phil are coming up with a game plan to talk to the kids about what they saw.
9.15 – 10.15 The kids are freaked downstairs, worried that it's going to be awkward when their parents eventually come down, they decide to leave the house, but as they open the door they are greeted by Gloria and Jay who say they need to speak to Claire. Haley says it isn't a good time.
(Unaware of Gloria's situation, Haley simply tells the truth – it really isn't a good time, but this only serves to reinforce to Gloria just how badly Claire has reacted to the email.)
10.15 – 11.30 Back with Cam and Mitchell, they are panicking about the stain in the rug.
(They contemplate paying for a new one but Cam saw it featured in a magazine and it costs $50,000. They think about keeping it a secret by simply turning the rug around hiding the stain.)
11.30 – 12.30 Gloria confronts Claire, telling her she's sorry it had to happen this way.
(A perfect storm of misinformation – Claire is talking about one thing and Gloria is talking about another. It's a classic comedy trope, perfectly executed and thanks to Gloria's broken English, it's easy to mask any shortcomings in what she's saying.)
12.30-13.10 When their wires become uncrossed, Gloria excuses herself and asks to use Claire's computer.
(Having had the situation explained, Gloria decides to try and remove the email from Claire's computer before Claire has a chance to see what she said.)
13.10 – 14.35 The kids are waiting around in a petrol station, they discuss what's been happening with their parents and conclude their parents will want to talk about the situation.
14.35 – 17.00 Claire confronts Jay about how when she was a child, she walked in on him and he didn't talk to her about it.
In the kitchen Phil talks to Gloria – who cannot get into Claire's email. She confides in Phil about her mistake but Claire overhears.
Jay covers for Gloria, saying it's a naked picture of her she accidentally sent, so Claire deletes the picture and Gloria and Jay head off to Vegas.
(B plot resolved – Gloria is in the clear and is free to leave having avoided getting in trouble.)
17.00 -18.30 Cam and Mitchell choose not to turn the rug, instead they pin the stain on Amelia's child, saying he took the juice and spilled it.
(A dastardly plan that could get them out of trouble – what could possibly go wrong?)
They were unaware that the child is allergic to strawberries. In a panic Amelia grabs an epipen and is about to inject her child when Cam and Mitchell confess, not before adding insult to injury by accidentally breaking her vase.
(C plot resolved, we have a satisfying end to their arc and they got their comeuppance for attempting to frame a child)
18.30 – 18.40 Back in the shawarma restaurant, Cam and Mitchell are ordering food.
(They have clearly been banished, and must forever languish in Shawarma-land.)
18.40 – 19.15 Back at the petrol station the kids agree that they unable to take a full blown conversation about this with their parents and the best plan is to just smile, nod and think about something else.
19.15 – 20.15 The kids smile and nod politely as Claire and Phil awkwardly explain the intricacies of adult sexual interaction. As their kids leave, Phil and Claire, convinced they have done a good job, wish each other happy anniversary and kiss each other, interrupted by Haley walking back in to ask for something, horrified all over again by her parents intimacy.
(A plot resolved – Phil and Claire think they've done a good job as parents and the kids get to not talk about it ever again.)
The kids walk in with an anniversary present for their parents – a lock for their door.
(A gag to close the episode. Getting a lock was a nice idea, the only problem is it makes a noise the whole house can hear whenever it's used – triggering a new wave of disgust every time.)
As you can see, within it's brief runtime there is barely a second wasted on this episode of Modern Family. Every minute drives one of the three plots forwards towards each individual conclusion.
This method is worth doing with other shows – in line with what you enjoy/are writing – as it can teach you a lot about the structure of a show, and potentially make the structuring and writing of your own show a less daunting experience.
Breaking down an episode is also a valuable exercise if you are planning to write a spec script for an current show you'd like to be hired on.Tags: