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Modern Family Recap: Vehicular Issues

MODERN FAMILY - "Planes, Train and Cars" - The Dunphys are in the market for a new car and Phil makes a spontaneous purchase without Claire. Will he have buyer's remorse? Meanwhile, Jay is determined to get to his high school reunion with Gloria and Manny in tow, and Lily loses her favorite stuffed animal on a public metro train, leaving Mitch and Cam with an inconsolable toddler, on "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, MAY 2 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/PETER "HOPPER" STONE)
NOLAN GOULD, TY BURRELL, SARAH HYLAND, ARIEL WINTER, JULIE BOWEN, KEVIN HART

Modern Family is like a meatball. (Bear with me here.) A good meatball is not only juicy and satisfying and simple, but can also be deliciously brought up to date by gourmet innovations like turkey or lentils. The bad ones are mostly breadcrumbs. Lately I think Modern Family has been about half breadcrumbs, and that’s too much. Recent episodes have featured too many saccharine “teachable” moments. I love that Modern Family brought those back to prime time, but sometimes it feels like they’re too busy nailing those moments to remember to tell jokes.

This episode began with promise. Sure Phil buying a convertible was a tired TV plotline, but Modern Family can be good with revitalizing those, and the story about Cam and Mitchell losing Lily’s favorite stuffed animal, Bunny, in the Los Angeles subway system seemed like the kind of real-life family debacle with which we can all identity (cry me a river, Lily! My parents once packed all my toys up in a garbage bag when we were about to go on a trip and some jerk garbage man came and got it when they weren’t looking and I lost all my toys). When Lily looked at her parents, arguing over who lost Bunny and just said simply, “I want Bunny,” the comedy was authentic. She is also super cute. You know who’s not looking super cute? Cam. I love him, but I don’t think 40 is treating him very well. He looked exhausted, even before falling asleep in front of the camera, with his eyes open, while he and Mitchell were talking about Lily’s sleepless night.

Then we come to our main story: Jay is going up to Pebble Beach for a reunion with his old football buddies, to reminisce about the time in his life when everything was perfect for him, even if, as Gloria points out, it wasn’t so great if you weren’t a straight white man. Jay seems excited for the trip and when Gloria questions him about it, he says that he’s sort of a legend to these guys and he wants to make sure he lives up to it. When I heard that, I sort of assumed he meant that unlike the rest of the guys, he had grown up and made a lot of money, and I thought that the payoff to the story line was going to be meeting a bunch of old salty dogs who were obsessed with Jay.

That was not in the cards. Gloria, Manny, and Jay have a hard time getting to Pebble Beach. First Gloria is terrified of the private plane Jay has rented. Then their car breaks down. Then the mechanic offers them a ride in his beat-up old … helicopter. That’s not going to work, so they go to a motel. Manny complains that there’s a serious drop of quality when the H in hotel turns into the M in motel and in frustration, Jay says the only line that got a true laugh out of me this episode: “When I met you, you were eating cereal out of a bucket.” Jay keeps trying everything to get to Pebble Beach, proposing that they hop on to a moving freight train and commence a “hobo adventure.” Gloria finally can’t take it anymore — she doesn’t want to go through any more just so that Jay can feel worshiped by his old gang. Then Jay confesses: maybe he wasn’t as cool as he made it out, maybe he was on the bench a lot, maybe he needs to take Gloria to meet these guys because that’s the only way that they’d believe he had such a hot wife. Realizing that Jay intended to use her as a trophy, Gloria finally gets onboard with his adventure, and they vow to make it to Pebble Beach.

Now, I was even more excited to see the shock on these old footballers’ faces when they met Gloria, but … that was the end of the episode!! I guess you can call Gloria’s realization of why Jay wants to go to the reunion the end of the arc, but it really felt like it needed one more beat. Mitchell and Cameron lied to Lily about Bunny’s whereabouts and then gave up on trying to rescue Bunny when they saw her in the arms of a homeless man who was coughing an unsettlingly damp cough into her fur. And Claire took the convertible for a spin and had a great day but lost the keys, in a somewhat satisfying but totally typical Phil-Claire reversal arc.

Both of those stories were fun, but predictable. It was nice to see Claire on her own, having a good time, blowing off being a mom. I felt like the show could have gone further with that — maybe some surf music playing in the background? — and that would have made the reveal that Claire lost the keys funnier. I love the way Modern Family shows us that the reason Claire is so high-strung and meticulous is because that’s the only way she can keep it together, so it would have been funny to see even greater consequences to what happens when she just lets loose. Along the same lines, this story took us straight from the moment when Claire was yelling at the guys in a neighboring car about how she would never buy such a car to her decision to make a break for it and drive up the coast, without much explanation. I would have liked to see Claire get pushed to the brink of a meltdown by the inconvenience of the car — and to arrive at liberation through that brink. Who wouldn’t like to see Claire melt down while on her errands, and then throw her dry-cleaning out the window of her new convertible as the wind wrecks her hair? Some might say that an image like that would be too out there for Modern Family, where most of the comedy is because the situations are the sort of small things that we totally believe would happen to these people. Okay. I sort of agree with that. I don’t take Claire for a Pacific Coast Highway litterbug. But then, how many mechanics have a helicopter in their garage? (That’s a real question. Is this common practice I don’t know about?)

I was glad that the episode was mostly free of the teachable moments that make the show too light on the grass-fed organic turkey meat and too heavy on the breadcrumbs. But if I didn’t have this recap to do, I think I would have forgotten it pretty soon after the credits for Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 started rolling.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC