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Modern Family Recap: The Kids Are All Right

A few errors to try avoiding as parents, everyone: When your daughter summons the bravery to go to college, alone and friendless, don't rub your own fears in her face. When your kindergartner makes peace with her tormentor and finds it in her heart to fall in 5-year-old-love with him, don't wage a snark-battle against the kid's parents at that exact moment. And when your son's gravely concerned about being adequately prepared for the new baby's arrival, try not to cut parenting class for some burritos.

"I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed," Manny tells Jay and Gloria after that last one, cribbing a classic line from How to Effectively Parent and Mess With Your Child's Head. (Does anyone on the show have a higher batting average for successful jokes than Manny, though? Even a basic role reversal and a patented line still lands.)

We learn a lot of the Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado clan's misguided ideas this episode. Phil's notion of a pitch-perfect toast is to quote George Jefferson ("here I stand, a proud black man … "). Jay's is, "My arm is tired — to Haley!" Phil's most extreme benchmark of emotionality is crying harder than the first time he saw Air Bud, and 24 is the maximum number of times any reasonable, healthy student should expect to have sex during their college career. Luke's idea of hiding his sadness at his sister's departure is to nonchalantly don an evil cyborg mask. (Luke's "don't drink too much beer and shots of tequila" is funny just in the way the words fall; Modern Family aims for thick joke density, but the attentive phrasing works well to shine up some of the in-between lines.)

With Haley heading to college, it feels like the wrong time to double down on her "huh? I'm dim!" schtick. Right off the bat, she doesn't know what a premise is and doesn't understand that George Jefferson was not quite a president; last episode she sat blank faced as Alex tried using the word facetious with her, then ditto for sarcastic. (My 5-year-old knows sarcastic. Pronunciation may still be stuck at starcastic, however.) We want to feel proud for Haley, not smack our foreheads — although the empty-headedness makes way for Claire's zinger to Mitch, equally proud of his daughter starting school: "Haley going to college is a miracle; Lily going to kindergarten is the law."

Two of this show's most perpetually grating aspects are Claire's unreasonably petty meanness (although it can breed nice barbs), and the fact that Cam and Mitchell are constantly sparring (the premiere was mostly a nice respite). That said, Mitch and Claire were well-crafted as brother and sister. Sarcasm is their coping mechanism, Mitch admits. Remembering that makes it a little easier to understand, if not to bear. And of course the way the sardonic humor trickles down to the kids can make it all worth it — the "don't dork up our room"/"don't slut up your college" ping-pong between Haley and Alex is gold.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the idea that there's going to be a new baby on the show (around midseason, says co-creator Christopher Lloyd), but since a non-speaking bundle arriving on a sitcom is rarely an engine to help grow the show itself, it's time to start realizing Jay's going to be a papa again. The Jay whose justification for the way his bickering, endlessly sardonic two kids turned out is "it's their mother's fault, I was barely around." If only he can exorcise his juvenile, off-color jokes in safe ways, like in the company of strangers at a parenting class, maybe he can start fresh.

Modern Family does a decent job of taking plotlines we've seen on sitcoms too many times to count — a baby class? Again? With the same teacher as always, except she's got a British accent? — and subverting them not with all-out Arrested Development–style irreverence and insanity but by staying true to its characters and finding the humor from there, rather than the situation. Gloria's cocky dropping of the burrito-wrapped baby doll and Jay's retort that not only was it not a race, it wasn't even close — that's a real moment, and funny as well.

We're given the gift of knowing that a tome titled Phil's-osophy now exists, half a collection of obtuse life tips and half bad one-liners. "The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you … if you just lower your expectations." "Dance until your feet hurt, sing until your lungs hurt, act until you're William Hurt." How great would that gift be to pore over alongside a new college roommate, all at your dad's expense? Instant best friends forever.

Summoned to Principal What-the-Fudge's office for Cam's playground vigilantism (Louis C.K. fantasized about this exact scenario in his last stand-up special), Cam and Mitch are pitted against … the boy's moms, one of whom is ‪Wendi McLendon-Covey of Bridesmaids. Though we're heading into a bramble of gay caricatures and easy, semi-uncomfortable jokes — Mitch goes to a gay bar called the Lumberyard; Pam goes to an actual lumberyard! Get it? She's butch! You get it, right? — we do get to see Cam and Mitch act out a human Venn diagram demonstrating why gay men and women don't mesh. Cam's smug lesbians-ride-motorcycles-lesbians-teach-gym-lesbians-hate-makeup routine is supposed to be ridiculous, but it's not that fun. His shrill call for Lily to open her locked bedroom door is supposed to flip the stereotyping back onto him, but that's not much fun either. It's not a cruel story line, but it does fizzle.

Back at college, a short year since Phil embarrassed Haley while touring a school and preparing for this very day, Phil and Claire are out to mortify their eldest as much as possible one more time. The condoms, the My Little Pony sheets? Come on, mom and dad — mixed messages! Not a good look! Gotta make a solid first impression, like, say, Julia Child. Later that night, a nice final shot of Haley in her dorm leads to the episode's obligatory heart-string symphony — the swell of the I love yous, the soothing so, so much, the crescendo to I'll miss you. It's a song we'll hear every time for the next many, many weeks. Savor it or deal with it.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC