It’s a brand-new year, but it appears that few of the characters on Modern Family have resolved to make any significant changes in 2012. If last night’s episode didn’t offer many surprises or take us anywhere all that new, then maybe there’s comfort in the familiar: in Cam and Mitchell bickering, in Phil’s one-liners, and Manny’s dandyism (Matt Damon in Bagger Vance, indeed). At times we may get frustrated because plot threads on Modern Family disappear and reappear with the randomness of Javier Delgado popping in for a visit — we keep waiting for Claire’s political ambitions to be fully realized, or even referenced— but if the laughs keep coming we can’t be all that mad. So, to quote Phil before a rectal exam: Let’s dim the lights, crank up the Norah Jones, and get this over with.
Phil Dunphy’s doctor is a terrible person. During a routine checkup, Dr. Sendroff notes a tenderness under Phil’s armpit and suggests they run some tests just to be safe. If anything’s wrong, he’ll give Phil a call. Of course, he calls and Phil misses him. When Phil calls back (like, a few minutes later?), he’s told that the doctor is now on a flight to London. So while Dr. Sendroff is off eating peanuts and enjoying some in-flight entertainment or whatever he’s doing, he leaves plenty of time for Phil to freak out. Claire tries to reassure him that it’s probably just a Luke-inflicted Quidditch injury, but Phil’s not having it: “That’s very comforting coming from a marketing major at a party school.” Ouch! Phil has extra reason to worry: the lifetime supply of Genesis twin blade razors he won fifteen years ago on a show called Smarty Pants has just run out (last night’s highlight was the flashback to game show contestant Phil looking eerily similar to Matthew Perry during the latter Friends years, answering “3.14159“ when the correct answer was “banana cream”). Things are looking bad, and Phil spends most of the remaining episode staring wistfully at his children. At least if Phil must face his own mortality, he has Luke’s decrepit BFF to advise him. Remember Walt, the grumpy old neighbor with the oxygen tank from last season? Well, he’s come over to play video games with Luke and to say cool things like, “See you in hell, Klaus.” Seeing him gives us hope that in the spring of 2013 we’ll see Phil’s new African-American friend again, the one who was into building that tree house. Who knows?
Phil’s not the only one who must grapple with a bad omen. Gloria has dreamed of encountering a black mouse, which in her country means something horrible is about to happen. (Stella the dog, by the way, has taken over for Baby Lily this season in giving the camera a “this person is crazy” look whenever deadpan is called for.) And speak of the devil, Gloria’s ex-husband Javier (Benjamin Bratt is as beautiful as ever) appears at their door, all suave and charming and unpredictable, the Colombian Ken to Gloria’s Barbie. Javier quickly nixes Jay and Manny’s plan for a boring golf outing, as he was planning to belatedly celebrate Manny’s birthday at the horse races. Gloria can’t make it because she’s promised to tutor Haley in Spanish, but she insists Jay accompany them. And so the stage is set for a familiar Modern Family–style ideological battle at the racetrack. In one corner we have Javier, the impulsive romantic who can see into the soul of a horse by looking into its eyes. In the other corner we have Jay, the pragmatist who has great faith in the racing forms. In the middle we have Manny, who just wants to root for the horse whose name reminds him of the girl he’s crushing on. This time around, Javier’s intuition pays off for him and Manny, and Jay’s practicality fails to impress (although his horse impressions are pretty delightful). Score one for the dreamers. More important, Jay acknowledges that he doesn’t like to be reminded of the existence of Manny’s biological father, because apparently, the kid is growing on him. Score one for character development. Jay’s slow transition from grouchy stepdad to earnest father figure is one of the few great evolutions on the show, and it feels particularly well earned, thanks to Ed O’Neill’s just-right portrayal.
And that brings us to the third string plotline, in which Mitchell and Cameron argue about who has the bigger trophy. Literally. When Mitchell wins an award that’s like the Oscar of environmental law, he proudly displays it on their mantel. Moments later, Cam’s Bass Catcher’s Spring Fish-Off trophy is plopped down right next to it. Ugh! When Mitchell moans to his favorite new confidante Alex about it and she concurs with every single thing he’s feeling, Mitchell makes an important realization: He is acting like a 14-year-old girl. We agree, although we might’ve liked some acknowledgment from Cam — the planet’s most easily offended man — that he was kinda guilty of thunder-stealing, no? So Mitchell tries to honor Cam by digging out all of his old trophies from the garage, but things go awry when he sees a … black mouse! Gloria’s vision in physical form. “Disgusting! Gross!” Mitchell cries as Cam and Lily return home, just in time to see Mitchell kicking Cam’s trophies. “I was gonna make a big display," Mitchell explains. Cam counters, “I believe you have.”
The end of the episode finds the entire family converging at the Dunphys — Phil and a deeply superstitious Gloria have done a pretty good job of letting everyone know that Phil is probably going to die at any moment. Manny and Jay bring Javier along, and watching the rest of the clan meet him for the first time is pretty terrific. “I know this may sound insensitive, but you are a beautiful woman and you will have no trouble to find … ” he close-talks Claire, before Gloria cuts him off (and Cam and Mitchell look on in appreciation). And then finally, after some buildup (“Are you gonna die?” asks an affectless Lily), terrible Dr. Sendroff finally returns Phil’s call. He was calling about … a real estate listing. “That is the most irresponsible, unprofessional thing I’ve ever heard of in my entire life,” Phil scolds, and we’re glad for the acknowledgment that the premise of this entire show was based on such foolishness. Ultimately, we find, everyone believes in their own omens and signs; a threatening dream or a shortage of razors can turn a simple phone call into a pivotal event. But c’mon — it’s not like you thought they were gonna give Phil cancer, did you? As we all knew it would, everything turns out just fine.