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Modern Family Recap: Remain in Moving Vehicle

MODERN FAMILY - "When a Tree Falls" - With some urging, Mitch joins in on Cam's efforts to save an old tree in the park, but just how far will they go? Jay and Manny are each pushed beyond their comfort zones when they attend a kid's Olympics-themed birthday party, and Claire brings Gloria along on a Costco run -- but add in a "pregnancy brain" and it makes for quite an eventful trip -- on "Modern Family," WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28 (9:00-9:31 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network.

Something about the easy feel of this episode drove me to see who was behind the camera, a gig that tends to feel interchangeable once an episode’s been ground through Modern Family’s well-oiled machinery. Turns out it’s series co-creator Steven Levitan, who only directs one or two episodes each year, generally at times when bigger pieces of plot are being shifted or introduced. It’s unsurprising that Levitan’s last time at the helm was this season's deft, loving premiere. (In a moment toward the end of this one I thought, Ah, now we see why this week’s been handled with such care — Gloria's having the baby. False.)

Every character is represented honestly and comically, except Mitchell being reduced to a few decent one-liners. (Okay, Luke, too, but that's par for the course. It's better this way — just go have fun in your hundred-eyed-alien shirt, little buddy.) And who turned on their TV thinking they'd hear the word cassingle? Who ever turns on their TV daring hope such audacious hopes?

The jokes stream straight from the Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgados’ hearts tonight, rather than being conveniently there for them to carry simply because A Writer Said So. Take Claire and Phil's teaching moment to Luke, that you don't make a shiv out of an old knife but rather a rusty spoon or a human femur. "Be creative!" Phil trumpets. It's clear he and his wife are a couple of prime-time-glued Americans as well as parents. These aren’t just silly lines out of left field — you know these two have had countless weekly living-room dates with bags of popcorn and shows like CSI and Prison Break.

Once or twice an episode, Eric Stonestreet reminds us how he's bagged two Emmys with this role. Tonight it's in the way Cam tries to breeze by the fact he's deeply jealous of the actor he's understudying for, insurance agent Kenny Van Heffington, and failing. "He's breathtaking. Yeah, I hate him. Anyway, what was I talking about?" It's delivered by someone who can't possibly view this character as flatly as he and his cohorts are sometimes written.

Speaking of greatness, Lily! Her dad’s removed her bureau handles and they only open with a spatula. "I can't live like this," she groans after dubbing the scenario a nightmare. Terrific. "Somebody's picked up her daddy's gift for hyperbole," Mitchell observes, a few episodes after Lily started mastering his tics.

"You're a kid, you're not Nixon on the beach," Jay tells a wingtip-wearing Manny. No idea why his brain goes straight to Nixon, but I love it, and only a tiny bit less than the knowledge that Manny calls his neglected sneakers "sporty-shoes." What a quotable episode.

It's refreshing having Haley back and learning she takes mugshots with "Party in the U.S.A." playing in her head. Alex’s cute but meh subplot reminds her the Haleys of the world will always steamroll the Alexes. Hopefully Alex can learn the opposite without having to compromise herself and join the Haley team. Alex's self-conscious admission that she’s hoping to accumulate some more friends ("in a few years" — set those social standards low, super-genius) is a nice moment, equal parts vulnerable and funny.

"God, I love you," pun-worshipping Phil tells Luke when his son makes a mid-level wordplay as they enter the Doug-lympics. Manny can’t quit being such a little Sisyphus; he’s dreading the athletic contest and would rather double-dutch than tug-o-war. Can you blame a kid whose peers match skin color to nationality for their simulated Olympics? Brilliant, sad, terrifying. "Does anybody care that I'm not from Mexico?" he asks, hand-delivering Luke the chance to come out as a birther and mail-ordering Jay an opportunity for the season’s hundred-thousandth border crossing/immigration/deportation joke. (You can hear the show pandering to half its huge audience through the cracks: “We know, conservative America! Foreigners do make a person feel weird! They’re crazy, right?!”)

Jay can't sling app-talk with the younger dads ("I dunno, I got call-waiting, is that an app?"), but he can level the conversation to caveman machismo razzing in a heartbeat, and does so at Phil's eminently mockable expense. This thread ends with Phil pounding four seasons of resentment into Jay's head and body in an inflatable boxing match worthy of a WorldStar video — paired with the embarrassing cries of "I SCOOPED ICE CREAM ALL SUMMER FOR THAT BOOMBOX!" After, Jay's feeling emotionally naked. "Those guys really liked you, too," Phil tells him. Jay's gut reaction: "I don't care about that. (Did they? Even Jerry?)"

By the way: Ed O'Neil did a whole talking-head aside looking intently past the camera. Was that cue-card reading or an attempt to look like he was addressing the interviewer rather than the cameraman? Does he do this often? Never noticed if so.

Gloria, being brain-drained by her growing baby, finishes a tender moment with Claire by trying to step out of a moving vehicle. Paul Scheer, of The League, NTSF:SD:SUV, and Human Giant (and one of the only comedians I've ever known to be not dead serious and completely unfunny in a telephone interview), appears as a mildly underused Costco overlord called … Paul. Claire can't imagine anyone could see her as a criminal when she’s such a mom. (Later, she and Gloria drive by some gas selling for $4.63. Jesus! This is supposed to be escapist entertainment, people. Don't remind us of the extraterrestrial prices at the pump, please!)

High in Treeona Elmsley (in honor of … Leona Helmsley?), Cam's overly sentimental nature-loving is believable. He and Mitch and Lily have family memories with Treeona, and those are always priceless. Cam’s also trying to teach Lily a lesson about taking a stand, but since he's a realistic parent this week (and lots of other weeks! just not … always), he's trying to teach other lessons at the exact same time, conflicts and all. "It's also important to show her the value of honoring one's commitments! And in this case, my commitment preceded my stand."

Cam and Mitch continue the season as the only couple repeatedly facing relationship problems that are more human and relatable than plot-driven. Tonight: Cam starts things without finishing them; Mitchell has a hard time being supportive.

A sensitive therapy-cop tries to end the tree-saving shenanigans. Corny that he's in therapy ‘cause his partner "shot that guy," but hey, it happens. I saw it in The Departed. The standoff gifts us a fur-and-spandex-wearing Cam, his face paint still fresh from the Cats dressing room. Licking sap from his hands like a cat? More corniness. Stella the dog mistaking him for an actual cat? A little better. Best of all is the opportunity for us as viewers to finally challenge the made-for-the TV assumption that protesters in trees always have a dramatic standoff against a menacing, fuming bulldozer. Maybe in real life the bored construction workers just shrug and call it a day.

Not a momentous episode, but an inspired one. This didn't feel like lab-grown humor following an add-more-jokes-now-add-MORE-jokes algorithm; it felt like the show’s brains were on a first- or second-season buzz, barrelling through an episode and letting it be funny rather than forcing it to be.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC