Pacing that’s super hectic yet seamlessly carried off. One-liners galore. Minor misunderstandings that lead to medium-size revelations and just a smidge of sap. A great big prat fall or two. Family brunch. These are some touchstones of a typical episode of Modern Family, and they were all in full effect last night (this time with individual frittatas). The formula works really well, if at times it favors repetition over major plot development. And while some of the family secrets divulged last night were not exactly shocking (Claire Dunphy does not have the comportment of a regular practitioner of yoga breathing), they did allow for some truly touching moments — even some subtlety amid the gleeful mayhem.
But let’s not begin with the secrets. Let’s bring Luke’s story line to the top of the page, because after a season of watching him smack-talk his cousin Lily with unabashed animosity — and steal scenes in the process — he’s earned it. After the rest of the family marvels over Lily’s cuteness at brunch, the camera pans over to Luke and Manny, who are sooo bitter — they used to be the cute ones. “We need to take her down,” Luke says, malice in his eyes. They devise a prank (maybe the big secret revealed here is that Luke is actually a talented mastermind, able to construct an impressively elaborate trap to ruin Lily) involving dominoes, cookies as bait, and a carton of milk in prime falling position. Of course, things don’t go as planned — it’s Cam who takes the bait and ends up splat on the kitchen floor. (It’s the perfect opportunity for Cam to fake a back injury in order to have time alone at the Dunphy house — he wants to search for missing Tupperware Claire claims to have already returned to him, and he must prove himself right.) But the boys have other things to worry about — Luke wants to help Manny impress his latest crush Miranda (“she’s like a dream wrapped in a wish poured into jeggings”). When Cam offers them a modest sum to wash his car (anything to get them out of his plastic-seeking way), Luke takes the keys and cranks some jams, and he and Manny take a really slow but enthusiastic joyride by Miranda’s house. Miranda, it seems, is into bad boys — and this is definitely bad-boy behavior. Luke and Manny’s Thelma and Louise–ing makes Miranda take notice, and it also leads the boys to an epiphany: They can let Lily be the cute one because they’re the bad boys. Seriously, taking off in Cam’s car is really bad! It’ll be interesting to see if next week Luke’s war with Lily is really at a détente, and if Manny still manages to have swagger — it’s hard to be a bad boy and a mama’s boy simultaneously, after all.
Apparently, the statute of limitations on family secrets is approximately twenty years, so Luke and Manny have some decades to wait before they can confess to the day’s shenanigans. At brunch, Claire has confessed that in her bad-girl days (what we wouldn’t give for a flashback!), she let her mom take the fall for ruining Jay’s car. Jay reciprocates with his own confession (we all know he missed a great Fire & Nice figure-skating semfinal). All is forgiveness and laughs. Mitchell joins in the fun by revealing that that one time he and Jay went golfing together, Jay didn’t actually score a hole in one — Mitchell just got bored and kicked the ball in the hole “from the edge of that sandy thing.” And suddenly it’s no longer a laughing matter. Jay’s golf buddies have been calling him “Ace” and buying him lemonades ever since, and this is serious. The setup for this Mitchell-Jay drama is a familiar one, with both of them still not totally capable of grasping each other’s values or understanding what makes the other tick. For Jay, it’s about honor among his golf buddies (a trio of chuckleheads who ultimately have their own secrets and insecurities), while for Mitchell it’s about the fear of marring his happy memories of the way he and Jay bonded after that hole in one, when they went out to celebrate and Jay gave him his first beer. Nope, Jay later explains, it’s about the hole in one. And also, he gave Mitchell his first beer after his disastrous 14th birthday. That’s it! There’s that moment, that blink and you’ll miss it glimpse of Jay’s sentimental side. It’s there — it just takes some cajoling to see it (unless you happen to be a French bulldog), and it goes away just as quickly. Until next week’s episode, at least.
If Mitchell and Jay’s scene is sweet but a little familiar, then it was a nice surprise to have a minor breakthrough for Claire and Gloria. When Claire runs out to go to a yoga class, Gloria follows after her, eager to join. It seems like it’ll be the typical situation where Gloria knocks herself out to push for a relationship with Claire and Claire blithely rejects her. But this time around, after trying out various evasions and lies, Claire lets Gloria in on a secret: the sacred place she goes to cope with stress is not the yoga studio — it’s the shooting range. (Does every suburban strip mall now have a shooting range next to the nail salon?) It’s like Claire’s Cheers — everyone knows her name there. Her justification to Gloria? “I live with four teenagers. You live with two adults.” True! As Claire and Gloria shoot together, we’re reminded that not since the clan’s Wyoming ranch adventure has so much family bonding taken place while firing guns. Sigh.
Another thing we haven’t seen since Wyoming is Dylan. Remember Haley’s lovable dummy of a boyfriend, who never made the trip home from the ranch? Well, his presence looms large in this episode, as Alex, Haley, and Phil bring Lily and her doll (who was an innocent victim in the cookies and milk incident) to be treated by the on-call doctor at the My Sweet Companion store (they take insurance). On the way to the mall, Phil learns, through a nifty bit of word play that reminds us that aversion and a virgin are nearly homophones, that his little girl is not nearly as pure as he thought she was. “Dad, she’s still a sweet little doll,” Haley tells Phil as the doctor explains that the doll will never regain full mobility in her shoulder joint. “No, she’s broken,” Phil replies. And here is where we’re reminded that sometimes the documentary aspect of the show really works. Phil is ready to have a “cool dad” moment with Haley — he looks at the camera and says everything he wants to say to us, the audience: that he realizes that sex is a natural part of life, and that he hopes that she’s being safe and that she feels free to talk to him about it. He manages to say none of this to Haley, and yet it’s enough, when she asks him whether he’d prefer a counter or a booth at the mall food court, he says, “Whatever seems right to you, I trust you.” Hug. No need for a heavy-duty Danny Tanner–style speech here, or a PSA. He’s said everything we wanted to hear to us, and he doesn’t need to say it again to Haley because she already knows. Haley, back on the couch at home, looks at the camera with a tear-stained face — not even a hint of sarcasm — and says, “I have a cool dad.” Such restraint, even more so than a grand emotional outpouring, is what makes this episode special.