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Modern Family Premiere Recap: Girls, Castles, and Automobiles

The second season of ABC's Modern Family started off not with a bang but with — well, it was a sort of crash, we guess. Various garages were invariably the sites of chaos in the show's first season, and here again we find Phil Dunphy trying to wrangle his bike out of storage only to unleash a deluge of Rubbermaid boxes full of Legos and other bits of plastic childhood paraphernalia upon his head. It's a wonder the Dunphy house is as tidy as it is — and God, is it ever tidy, as are the homes of the Pritchett-Delgados (Claire's father Jay, his second wife Gloria, and her preteen son) and the Pritchett-Tuckers (Claire's brother Mitch, his partner Cameron, and their adopted baby daughter) despite the mishaps and chuckle-worthy messiness of all their lives.

In its first season, Modern Family did a nice job of balancing the sweet and the sour, twisting all sorts of off-kilter weirdness into even the most poignant moments, rarely letting itself tip the scale too far to one side. For last night's premiere, at least, we got a little sweeter than usual, with all three families suffering growing pains. Phil yanking suburbanite detritus down on his head led to a conversation between him and Claire regarding the broken-down old station wagon that the junk also landed on — whether to keep it for their oldest daughter, the indolent and soon-to-be-driving Haley, or sell it. (Haley's moon-faced, air-headed surliness has become something of a punchline at this point; while middle sister Alex and little brother Luke both had their unlikely transformative moments last season, the closest she got was an unfortunate drunken afternoon on a family vacation in Hawaii, and so this season seems likely to prove either that there's a certain hidden spark to her, or that the writers just weirdly love her as a teen-girl punching bag.) But after a bit of coaxing, it's clear that Claire isn't upset about the possibility of Haley figuring out (as she and Phil did, years ago) that the backseat is the prefect size to house a mattress so much as she's just bummed that her kids are growing up.

Gloria is dealing with a version of the same tension with Manny, her preteen son from her first marriage, whose cautious, precocious navigations of adolescent life and love and integration into the broader Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan provided some of the first season's best moments. Last night we found him trying to woo Kelly, a girl from school: “She's not my girlfriend,” he insists to a prying Jay and Gloria. “She's just coming over to discuss the life cycle of silkworms.” By the end of the afternoon, though, the kids have merged their science notes into one notebook (“It just felt right,” the tween inamorata sighs), and Gloria begins to feel the creeping threat of another woman; when Manny breaks a movie date with her to have dinner with Kelly's family, it's heartbreak. “The leading cause of death among Colombian women is when their sons get married,” she laments. But by the end of the night, Manny's over the girl (“Kelly didn't like my jacket — and she ordered for me”) and on to the next, calling up another with whom he's enjoyed a few rollicking games of Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon (bless her heart) — but this, like Claire's vision of her family's fast-approaching future, hits her hard.

In the third corner, the conflict remains between the two adults. Cameron and Mitchell's daughter Lily has somehow grown more adorable over the break and her dads have decided its time to bestow upon her the princess castle of her (their) dreams. They shelve the blueprints Mitchell has apparently been designing for much of his life in favor of a from-the-box kit. There's some assembly required — just enough to cause a major rift between the couple, exacerbated by both the presence of power tools and Mitchell's man's man of a dad, Jay. Before the project begins, Mitchell and Cameron are interviewed jointly and seem equally supportive and excited about the castle-making. But Cam, when alone, confesses his fears: “If an accident does happen, I hope he kills me,” Cameron admits, his teddy-bear jowls quivering. “I don't think I would be a very inspiring disabled person.”

That may be true, but he gets a gold star for soldiering through the construction with Jay, whose continued grappling with his son's homosexuality was a smartly wrought thread through most of the last season. But there's nothing quite like the building of a pink-and-purple princess castle to bond a grumpily straight fellow with his kid's gay life partner, right? Jay's relationship with Mitch is another matter: After telling the confessional camera about building a bookshelf with the boy some years before — “It was my Vietnam, and I was in Vietnam” — he has to rescue his son from the locked playhouse after a doorknob falls off and a bird flies in (perhaps an enraged cousin of the one Mitch slaughtered with a tennis racket in the first season finale). But maybe thanks to his hammer time with Cam or some gradual wearing-down of his old-school fatherly tendencies — he seems more aware of Mitch's desperation to make himself useful in some traditional, masculine way. “I want to be able to look out into my yard and say there's a little bit of me in that princess castle,” Mitch says, bleary-eyed. Presumably, Lily loves the castle because she is adorable and perfect. We're hoping that she's a perma-baby and never ages and remains the most incredible silent little vaguely smiling lump on television, forever and always.

Meanwhile, the Dunphys take one last spin in their old station wagon, driving up to an old favorite spot with the kids crammed in the backseat, snacking on fast food. It's a sweet setup — a growing-up family remembering that special way they used to do things not all that long ago. Then, of course, it all falls apart in a way that's impressive for even this show's catastrophe-prone characters: spit takes, vomiting, rogue spiders, a neglected parking break, and a station wagon rolling down a cliff. In a matter of seconds, the show swings from a sweet moment to a panicked one, and then rights itself again, as always. Change may be coming, but at least we still have that. And also, Lily.

Photo: ABC