If you'd told us two months ago that we'd actually miss Modern Family when it went on break for the holidays, we might have laughed at you. But after three spot-on episodes in a row and nearly a month of reruns, the show kicked off its second season's second half in such fine form that we're hoping next week we won't feel at all compelled to mention how iffy things were looking there for a while.
One thing a few of this season's earlier episodes had in common was how hermetically sealed many of the individual plots felt. A family is usually its own best source of material, but whenever any of the Pritchett/Tucker/Dunphy/Delgados clan interacts with someone from the outside for any length of time, it's refreshing. And the show's been mining the us-against-the-world thing more and more, here with Mitchell and Cameron's new neighbor, Barry (James Marsden). They meet this guy after they spy him using their hot tub one night — as in, they peep out of Lily's bedroom window, see a dude doing his ablutions, and opt not to call the authorities but instead to go down and chat him up, because not only is he a strange dude using their hot tub, but he is also a grade-A hunky dude using their hot tub. Completely preposterous, but at least Cam and Mitchell aren't squabbling about — oh wait, they are squabbling, because Cam gets all googly-eyed over Barry, who is also a part-time coyote whisperer and Reiki master in training. (And okay, this was a great squabble, actually — “What about But-Yet Rachel?”)
Mitch is vaguely suspicious, but Cam, as always, thinks he needs to be less judgmental. And then he is! Barry comes over and gives him a nice massage and they're all like “Namaste!” and the tides seem to be turning — at least until it's discovered that Barry isn't renting the apartment upstairs like he told them, but rather has set up camp in the pink wooden princess castle Cam and Mitch (and Jay) built for Lily earlier this season. Besides the obvious comedy of this detail, we appreciate it because it suggests that, like so many real-world construction projects that threaten to tear apart families and whole lives, the castle has quickly fallen into such disuse that a grown man could set up living quarters there and no one would be the wiser.
It was a low-key week for this branch: Jay only managed to throw in a few caveman-ish, Gloria-is-a-very-attractive-woman-ha-ha jokes, but nobody made one of those weird, tired Colombia cracks — a small triumph. Manny has decided to join up with a group of cool kids who ride their bikes to school, but he can't actually ride his own without training wheels so Jay swoops in to teach both him and Gloria, who never learned while growing up. (“My mother said, 'That's how people grab you!'” — We'd say that was a weird, tired Colombia joke but we know moms like that in the U.S., too.) Jay lays down the basic rules — laces, mirror, bell — and Manny, covered head to toe in protective gear, takes to it like a champ. Gloria, though, lands in the shrubbery. “I need someone gentle, nurturing — like a woman,” she says, so she goes to see if Phil's home. He's on his way out, but Luke volunteers (“My playdate canceled, so I was wide open”) and coaxes her into pedaling off by blasting her with a Super-Soaker. And off she goes, hair flapping, wheels turning, grinning away. She's doing great, until ...
... Claire comes along, knocks her off the bike, and speeds away on it, chasing a silver sports car that's been flouting the neighborhood speed limit. The episode opened, actually, with Claire on the sidewalk with a megaphone, preparing to verbally shame and take down the plate number of whoever the heartless would-be child/baby/jogger killer might be. The megaphone did nothing but allow Phil a great moment (“Luke, I am your father,” he intones into the contraption. “That's what I said when you were coming out of your mom's ladyparts.” Cue Haley screaming and throwing herself into the bushes.) But she gets the tag number and prints up a baffling sign (“Slow Down Your Neighbors?”). Luke shares her skepticism of law enforcement, for some reason, and we loved seeing his little eyes sparkle with the promise of vigilante justice. (“What is the one thing a speeder can't outrun?” “Bullets! A laser! A laser-falcon!”) Oh but of course there's a catch, and it's that — “Sweet Valley High!” — the speed demon happens to be the same lady whose house Phil is so desperately trying to sell in order to usurp Gill Thorpe as the Salesman of the Quarter. (“She wants to test me? They've been testing me my whole life. Can't find anything.”) Cue the confrontation at an open house, neighborly gossip, feet entering mouths, etc. We were under the impression that it had been a crappy year for Phil professionally — are we to believe his big battle here wasn't simply one just to stay afloat, but actually one to become top dog at his company? At least the show made itself likable again before dropping that little bomb.