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Modern Family Recap: The Tenacity of a Puggle

When contemplating the supposedly of-the-moment world of Modern Family, it’s helpful to remember that 25 years ago, Cliff and Clair Huxtable both had careers. Which isn’t to say that two-income households should now be the norm for every TV family, just that quaint ideas about gender roles sometimes make MF feel less empowering than a Bravo reality show — The Real Housewives of Modern Family, say. So last night’s episode focusing on the desires of the ladies of the family was long overdue, if slightly unsatisfying. It finds Claire contemplating venturing out of stay-at-home-momdom for the first time, even as Gloria — whose own husband can’t think of anything else she does all day besides go to the gym — struggles to be heard (how ironic, given the pipes on that woman!).

As Phil and a post-gym Claire (is the perpetually ripped Claire ever not post-gym?) walk down the street, they see a familiar face: the delightfully smarmy David Cross reprising his role as the traffic committee buffoon who denied Claire’s request for a stop sign in last week’s episode. Now he’s in ass-kissing mode, campaigning for reelection. The pens he’s handing out may read “Duane Bailey: Councilman, Citizen, Puggle Breeder” (“I love them because they’re a different mix of breeds — just like America”), but he shows little finesse as he belittles and blows Claire off when she wants to talk issues. Claire’s incensed by Duane’s smugness, so Phil urges her to take matters into her own hands and run for office against him. “I’m turned on by powerful women,” he says, “Michelle Obama, Oprah, Condoleezza Rice, Serena Williams … wait a minute.” As Phil literally pushes Claire into running (“Go fly!”), he vows to be at home for the kids, and if Phil Dunphy weren’t such a walking pratfall, he might even excel at it.

Meanwhile, Cam and Mitchell are waiting for a scary movie to begin when a man with two young kids sits down behind them. Cam, not realizing that he and Mitchell are in the wrong theater and that this one’s showing the Muppet movie, is horrified when the man ignores his unsolicited warnings that the film is inappropriate for children. Oops. The dad is offended, the kids are scared — of Cam, Mitchell is predictably mortified, and we want to know what sort of time-space continuum they crossed into to see the new Muppet movie before its Thanksgiving release date. (Unless it’s the classic Muppet Movie from 1979, but if that were so, why would Gwyneth Paltrow be in it?) As if their movie experience weren’t scary enough, Cam and Mitchell are then the victims of a hit-and-run car crash. The man who rear-ended them is apologetic at first, but while Cam rhapsodizes about how the fender bender would make for a perfect meet-cute in a romantic comedy, the offender speeds away. Adamantly nonconfrontational Mitchell refuses to pursue him by car, leaving a frustrated Cam to give chase in his Cam way — shrieking, arms flapping, almost Muppet-like. Needless to say, the bad guy escapes.

Jay is frustrated, too. His client’s snotty son (Samm Levine, basically playing his wheeling and dealing Freaks and Geeks character all grown up) has taken over the family business, and now Jay has to “wow” him — to somehow make the dependable closets he’s been selling for years sound as mind-blowing as a cocktail served at a “bumping” South Beach nightspot. Jay’s not amused (the reaction shots are priceless), and the last thing he wants is to talk the problem through with his flashy wife (irony!), even though she insists, “I HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS!” Manny, too, is struggling with a world that values style over substance — “the Bieberization of America,” he calls it. He’s determined to keep his class report on the mafia simple, shooting down Gloria’s over-the-top suggestions (“Why don’t we go upstairs and get your old rocking horse and we chop the head off?”) with dismay.

Poor Gloria is feeling useless and ignored when the rest of the family stumbles over for dinner. There’s Luke, sporting a black eye that Phil accidentally gave him; Alex (Ariel Winter proving that she’s as adept at physical comedy as her adult castmates) weaving drunkenly from the drowsy-making meds Phil mistakenly administered; and Haley, who’s in deep trouble after the local sleazebag she hired to make fake I.D.s for herself and some friends has made off with their money without delivering the product. While the women and children stay at home (because now the time-space continuum says it’s 1894, apparently), Jay, Cam, and Phil — with Mitchell as a reluctant fourth — decide to go to the sleazebag’s house themselves and get Haley’s money back. Because the perfect cure for four men who are feeling ineffectual is to band together to shake down a local punk, apparently (busy week for that actor — he was just Big Head Todd on the most recent Community). A shaky premise, but the payoff is great — Mitchell tackles the dude as he tries to make a getaway, and darned if he isn’t wearing a cute pair of underpants.

While the men are off vanquishing their enemies, Gloria seizes on the opportunity to give the pep talk she’s wanted to give all night. Ignoring the kids — all of whom could probably use some parental care — she and Claire have a booze-fueled heart-to-heart in which Gloria convinces a conflicted Claire to conquer her fear of losing (and it’s clear she’ll lose!) and run for office. With Gloria’s encouragement (“I come from a family of tough ladies, and I have to say sometimes you scare me leetle bit”), Claire’s on the way to being a candidate who’s as tenacious as the puggles her opponent breeds. When the triumphant men return home, Phil is the one to discipline Haley (go, Phil!) and Gloria proudly announces Claire’s candidacy. Then Gloria, ever the helper, is seen using her … assets (cue giggles from Phil and Luke) to wow Jay’s client. Sad and funny that at the same time Claire’s taking on new challenges, Gloria’s greatest power remains in her cleavage.

Photo: ABC/RICHARD FOREMAN