This kind of episode is pretty much why we started loving this show in the first place: Laughter! Tears! Joy! Suspense! Gratuitously jiggling boobs! Plus, there were shots fired? Out of a gun? Also, there was a dance routine. The jokes hit often and hit well, and characters we hadn't seen much of recently (ahem, Manny and Luke) were pushed out a little more to the front. It wasn't perfect — the show's still doing some kind of wonky things we wish it wouldn't — but this is why we've been such curmudgeons for most of season two. We've known this whole time that Modern Family can deliver episodes like this one. Here's hoping we're out of the slump.
First, let's back up a little bit: Two weeks ago, it was nice to see something about Phil's professional life finally incorporated into the story line. It added in exactly the right twinge of legit drama to the episode and supplied some tension that we're hoping the series will play on again somewhere down the line. That said, we're okay with the conflict not cropping up again this week. Instead, Phil and Claire accidentally spark a near-total familial meltdown by staging a two-car race to a restaurant for Manny's birthday dinner — Phil and the girls in one car, Claire and Luke in the other. On the way, both cars get sidelined thanks to the prodding of mom and dad's most tender parental insecurities: Claire realizes Luke might like Phil more than her (“Dad's, like, crazy fun — but you're nice”), and Phil gets the tough news that Alex and Haley aren't interested in attending his beloved Family Camp next summer (Phil is still bragging about his team winning Color Wars last year: “This year I predict total white domination!”).
With the Dunphys, it's usually boys to one side and girls to the other, so it was a nice change to see Phil try to navigate the treacherous minefield of female adolescence (“What is it? Boys, your bodies are changing, eggs?”) while Alex and Haley tag-teamed against him (in cahoots, Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter have provided some of the season's best moments so far, including some really excellent car-crying this week). Luke was overdue for some one-on-one time with Claire, especially since it's becoming more and more established that he and his dad are basically the same person — and of course, this extra exposure only solidified our intense desire for an all-Luke holiday special. (Show-runners, take note: Christmas is just around the corner — as are Hanukkah, Boxing Day, New Year's, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Valentine's Day, and National Children's Dental Health month. So just take your pick.)
Now this is how to have a fight with your boyfriend as you're walking through an outdoor mall plaza on the way to your nephew's birthday party. First, start a low-level squabble, like you always do, when he squeals and stops for a lotion sample. Then huff and puff and roll your eyes around when he stops to help an elderly man attempt to reconcile with his also-elderly lover, but then get weirdly involved in the reunion and wind up getting your phone smashed until it becomes clear that you're actually helping to facilitate some geriatric cuckolding. Then continue about your way, feeling smug as he admits you were probably right and that sometimes it's not super-great to be impulsive — but then, as you emerge into the plaza and the gentle strains of En Vogue's “Free Your Mind” fill the air, and people begin to dance and your boyfriend awkwardly explains to the unawares TV audiences what a “flash mob” is, join in the perfectly choreographed commotion. Get down with your oddly well-coordinated self and prove him wrong and blow his mind! Or piss him off, because he's a walking gay theater-nerd cliché and he's miffed — “You cheated on me with choreography and that is the worst kind.” Either way, this was so much better — seriously, so charming and unexpected! — than the usual living-room bickering between Mitchell and Cameron that we're willing to forgive the show for centering their subplot around yet another squabble about the guys' clashing levels of general life flexibility. Hopefully this was the final showdown, the fight toward which all the other recent ones had been building, and now they can move on to something else. Although we have no idea what else that might be. Maybe Lily will start talking soon and can start throwing out some sass of her own, and maybe at some point they will all dance to En Vogue together? Dreams!
Actually, we should cool it with the ridiculous requests for future plots until someone works on getting Jay a new joke about his wife. So far this season, seemingly once an episode, he's used her hailing from South America as an excuse for why she's so batty, and now here uses it as a reason for why she should be less batty: “I'm always on time. Not my wife. You'd think growing up in a place full of death squads and drunken uncles, she'd learn to move a little faster.” The issue at hand is that she's lost her keys, which is right up there with Jay forgetting their anniversary two weeks ago in terms of totally bonehead sitcom crutches we can't believe they're leaning on. But that's quite fortunately not the focus of the subplot — instead it's Manny, who's celebrating his birthday with the crushing realization that he's squandered his childhood.
All of his smoking-jacket-wearing, espresso-sipping, and newspaper-browsing has finally caught up with him, though it's a testament to how disappointing this season has been so far that the most we've seen of his delightful, proto-curmudgeonly ways comes in this episode as he tries to battle the onset of adulthood by regressing into the kid world he'd previously eschewed — mixing sodas, making prank calls, floating around the pool fully clothed while lounging on a giant blow-up beach scene. (“Is that a skateboard down there?” “The second thing that slipped right out from under me today.”) But the more he tries to prove he's not just a little old mini-man, the more it becomes incredibly evident that he totally, totally is. Finally, something pretty fantastic involving Gloria and a small firearm deflates his reverie and his family birthday dinner (where everyone was headed all this time) proceeds in prematurely dapper style, with tender apologies all around but nary a voice-over.