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Modern Family Recap: Saddle Up

Hey, so did you guys catch the Modern Family Awards on Sunday night? The show swept the comedy category of the 2011 Emmys so decisively that now there will surely be legions of haters poised to cry “overrated!” or “meh” if Modern Family doesn’t consistently prove to be as sharp and cutting edge as Julie Bowen’s clavicles. So how did Modern Family's first episodes of the new season fare? A bit like Ty Burrell’s Emmy acceptance speech: not all that surprising and a little sentimental, but charming nonetheless.

The night kicks off with the whole clan (plus Dylan, who’s starting to look like a Madame Tussaud’s wax figure version of himself) heading to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a dude ranch vacation, complete with skeet shooting, horseback riding (Gloria’s got skills), super-cute cowboy clothes, and many versions of masculinity to explore. Phil is convinced that when Jay says, “Phil is my son-in-law” he’s actually saying “Phyllis, my son-in-law,” so Phil has been practicing his cowboy skills in an attempt to impress Jay with his manliness. (It's not the first time this particular story line, the cowboy particulars aside, has been trotted out.) Cam and Mitchell are on the macho kick, too — they see the trip as an opportunity to butch up the photo book they’re putting together to impress prospective moms — they wanna adopt a baby boy! Then Mitchell, who isn’t exactly the strongest dude on the ranch, grapples with the frustratingly heteronormative question of whether he’s manly enough to raise a son (“I need to be able to teach my son all the things that my dad taught … Claire”). Luke just wants to shoot off some firecrackers and see “stuff turn into flying chunks of stuff,” while Manny, bless his heart, just wants to book a spa treatment.

Tim Blake Nelson guest-stars as Hank, the authentic cowboy who’s supposed to look out for all the city slickers, but who only seems interested in breaking in one filly — Gloria. Jay is predictably pissed. Give Hank credit, though, for perceptively giving Claire the nickname Bossy, because, yes. Bossy is in full effect when Dylan proposes (eek!) to Haley and Bossy says no, before 17-year-old Haley has the chance to respond for herself. Heartbroken Dylan runs away, and when a frantic Haley and Bossy eventually find him the next morning, after having an “I’m not a baby anymore” heart-to-heart, Dylan tells them that he’s been hired as a ranch hand, and he’s staying in Wyoming — permanently. Huh? Did we miss the episode where Dylan became an expert roper, or was Lost Creek Ranch really just looking to fill a dreamy guitar player slot? Bye, Dylan!

Haley is not the only Dunphy sister in romantic turmoil: Alex has an unplanned first kiss with a brash Italian boy who looks and sounds (“Hey, gawgeous”) a lot like Lady Gaga’s male alter ego Jo Calderone, if Jo were auditioning for a bit part on The Sopranos. Definitely a weird casting choice, but it was still exciting to see Alex put down her copy of Freakonomics and follow her hormones for once. In an episode that saw most of the cast settling into their routine roles (Gloria sings off key extra loudly and screams, for the entire episode! Claire complains incessantly about Dylan!), it was nice to see a bit of real character development for Alex.

If the Jackson Hole trip saw Mitchell questioning what it means to be masculine when faced with the prospect of adopting a son (Could NO ONE acknowledge that perhaps this baby could turn out to be gay and/or extra sensitive like Manny and/or just not that into sports?), the second episode is a kind of coming-out party (pardon the pun) for the New Lily. We’ll always have a soft spot for the twins who played Old Lily, the perfect straight man (er, baby) to balance Cam and Mitchell’s theatrics, and if the Emmys offered a Best Baby in a Comedy category, those stoic twins would’ve had our vote. But New Lily is a pleasant surprise — sure, she’s cute, but so far there’s been no mugging for the camera, no “adorable” catchphrases — Cam is still way more likely to be a Toddlers & Tiaras contestant than she is. And while sometimes New Lily smiles, she’s at her best when she’s surly, particularly when she deadpans about her future little brother: “No, I hate the baby.” “I wanna make the baby dead.”

Mitchell is sure that Lily is hating on the baby because she’s possessive of smothery Cam, who “wears her like a fanny pack.” Cam attempts to detach himself from Lily even as Mitchell learns that Lily has a sharing issue, a habit her teacher says is usually picked up from a parent. Cut to several examples of Mitchell being a bad sharer: “My chicken!” “My pillow!” "Daddy’s pen!” So whose fault is it that Lily is becoming a “pushy entitled little monster”? As Mitchell and Cam gather the rest of the family to break the news that they’re adopting, it’s clear that they’re not the only ones playing the blame game.

In a scene that leaves causality slightly ambiguous, Claire tumbles into a big pile of cans while grocery shopping with Phil, at his oblivious best. Claire claims that Phil pushed her, while Phil denies any wrongdoing. Claire is sure she’s right, a sentiment that she obviously throws around a lot in the Dunphy household (“Okay, Claire, you’re right. As always”). She then hijacks Mitchell and Cam’s adoption announcement party to play a security tape she procured from the grocery store, which clearly shows Phil knocking her over. “I was right,” she says with glee. “Suck it!” The family’s reaction, rightly, is “You went to all that trouble to prove you were right?” Ick. We know that Claire is a lovable control freak, but we fear that season three has found her crossing into hateful territory.

Meanwhile, Manny has been accused of stealing a locket from a classmate, a charge that Gloria heatedly denies until Jay interrogates him and he sweatily confesses. Jay makes sure Manny didn’t want to wear the locket (not being manly, it seems, is an offense worse than stealing — a pervasive theme of the night), but Manny just wanted the locket as a token of his crush du jour. Gloria and Manny tell Jay that Manny has confessed to the school principal when Gloria’s actually let him slide. Jay is on to them. If Gloria is the smoothest of criminals, her sensitive accomplice cracks under Jay’s scrutiny, and when Jay finally gets the truth out of him, Jay gloats, “I was right!” A-ha! So that’s where the Pritchetts get it from.

Photo: Rick Rowell/ABC