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Modern Family Season Finale Recap: Grandma, You’re a Firework

For a split second, it seemed like our season four finale was going to be … serious? Phil’s mother, Gracie, whom we never had the pleasure of meeting, has died. Even small doses of Fred Willard’s Frank Dunphy have explained so much about why Phil is the pun-addicted, trampoline-loving, Clive Bixby–creating, irretrievably goofy man he is; it’s a shame we’ll never see the maternal side of this mystery unveiled.

So yes, grandma has died, but the tragedy is more of a setup for vacation high jinks than it is any kind of  grim episode-dominator. ModFam’s three households are all convening in Florida to be together with grandpa and Phil. As this journey begins, it’s very important to Alex you don’t forget she shared a very special connection with her grandmother. More so than, say, Luke, or Haley.

Claire, ready to be there for Phil, gets shafted as Phil embraces his beloved neck pillow. Gloria arrives in distress — she once lived in Florida and has history adjacent to a certain illegal brothel known as Quick & Easy. A security guard in Phil's father’s community is hyperefficient, sorry for the family’s loss, and telepathic when it comes to knowing Phil can’t abide the No Duck-Feeding policy. Fork over the bird-snacks, buddy. Also: Notice how Frank’s neighbor comments that the whole Californian family resembles a pack of movie stars? Is this a sly acknowledgement of the fact most of these actors could be in serious movie mode within a few years?

Cameron and Manny are all matchy-matchy tonight — pastel shirts, rolled-up cream-colored pants, comfy footwear. Unfortunately, Manny gets criminally short shrift this week, as does Luke. But those end credits featuring them as creaky, lazy, porch-dwelling, rocking-chair gents? Splendid. The little guys are two of the show's best, and strangest, characters. Can we boost their screen time next season, please?

As a temporary Floridian, Cam realizes he can be a celebrated old-lady charmer and bathe in Mahjong scandal gossip. It’s heaven for Cam even if the ladies are the type who’ll realize Cam is gay and immediately ask if that means he knows a specific other gay person he would totally never know.

Phil's mother left a shoebox of mementos for the family. Phil is terrified she requested him to throw her ashes … into the Pope's face? What?! But no, mom actually wanted Phil to set his dad up with a lovely lady who lives in the neighborhood. (Dunno about you, but that gets an awww from the me department.) Apparently Florida is filthy with "scheming harpies" likely to claim the newly single soul of Frank Dunphy, a man already apt to "follow anything with a casserole.” So Phil has been enlisted to make sure dad’s properly taken care of.

The grandkids receive their grandmother’s final gifts. Luke has never seen a pocket watch, and of course he’d think the chain is a safety measure in the event of a watch-swallowing. We'll miss you all summer, Luke. Alex, sharer of the hallowed special connection with Grandma Gracie, is miffed that her gift is nothing more than a lighter and a card reading, “This is a lighter.” Burned?

Mitchell wins a court case for a stranger while Gloria waits her turn. Just as I'm thinking we haven't really seen Mitchell do much in the legal arena except bumble, Gloria says, "It scares me that winning is such a surprise for you." Mitch starts defending a parade of people, his lawyering as sharp as his suit game. There's a great, speedy callback to season one’s Valentine's Day episode — "SHAME!" Modern Family echoed Arrested Development a few times this season — do we dare hope for more winking callbacks and running gags like this in the future? Skewing a little more self-referential wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to ModFam.

Speaking of Arrested Development: Sure, Phil and Claire often seem engaged in a lifelong game of Toldja So, but could Phil's "I guess it's fair to say you've made a huge mistake" be anything but an explicit homage to one George Oscar Bluth? If there’s any doubt, Claire's verbatim "I've made a huge mistake" settles it. I wish we could know if this was just a loving, respectful nod to Arrested's comic legacy or if it’s a meta acknowledgement of the fact that Arrested will finally debut a new season in a few days. And suddenly I’m realizing the Leisure Park security guard rides a vehicle not dissimilar to a Segway, G.O.B.'s signature set of wheels.

There's a nice, dense pocket of laughs in the middle that makes me feel like I'll miss not only Luke but the entire show over the summer: Cam tells one of his new ladyfriends he hates to stir things up … as he stirs a punch bowl. A second later, Jay explains to a neighbor that he's Phil's father-in-law. Jay accepts the requisite apology as Phil-related rather than as condolences for a death everyone is grieving. The best of the bunch, though, is when Alex and Fred Willard peruse old photos together. "Grandma looks so happy here," Alex sighs. "Yeah, we were pretty hammered," Willard responds, equally nostalgically. (One more favorite is Gloria earnestly calling the judge "your majesty." I'm laughing to myself thinking back on it.)

While there are good amusements in all the subplots, this episode feels cluttered for a finale. It’s too packed with ho-hum characters we’ve never seen: Cam's group o’ grandmas, the woman Jay lost his virginity to in his Navy days ("turns out she's sent more men off to war than Lyndon Johnson"), the judge, the omnipotent-but-pointless security guard. After a season chock-full of stunt casting, it’s puzzling why none of this episode’s roles went to better-known actors. That’s not much of a gripe, though; my real problem is that a smaller scale probably would’ve made for a more memorable sendoff. Let’s be honest: The roller rink episode should’ve been the finale.

One newbie who earns her keep is Annie, a neighbor who plays audience for Phil's beautiful, tearful remembrance of his mother to a total stranger. After a season written more for Phil than for anyone, Ty Burrell gets a half-hour almost devoid of silliness and gets this scene to show off his stuff. "She was always doing crazy stuff like this, going out of her way to take care of us. I coughed on the phone once and she overnighted me soup; when I wanted to learn how to ski, she knit me a sweater; when I wanted to be a marine biologist, she knit me a sweater with a whale on it." Are any fans of the series left unmoved at this point? But isn’t it still offputting the subplot never gets resolved? A potential love interest for a rarely seen character isn’t exactly a thread you want to leave untied as you wrap up a season. Maybe Annie’s brief glance at Frank during the end is enough.

Has anyone ever heard "Amazing Grace" on clarinet? Has anyone ever seen fireworks at a memorial service? Both great things. Good tearjerking lord! I’d have preferred a raucous display of dysfunctional antics to close out the season, but ModFam hasn’t focused much on its warm-and-fuzzy side for a while, so it’s fine. This is a strong ending. And after a season that lacked any interesting overarching plot motors (no, the pregnancy and the invisible baby don’t count), we’re given a promise that something will (or might) change next season: Mitch is leaving his office to get back into the courtroom. Biweekly Mitchell court case scenes, please!

Last week, perennial ModFam commenter KDMZ wrote, “When the inevitable EW history of the show is written this will be referred to as 'The Lost Season.' … The show needs some sort of colonic jolt. Not an illness or another pregnancy. Just something to re-energize the writers.” I can see that, and, at a certain level, I agree. While this season featured some new classics (the roller rink episode, the premiere, the one where Haley gets booted from college, “When a Tree Falls”), Modern Family’s comic energy — largely in the writers’ room, although sometimes in the performances — wasn't commensurate to its increasingly firm foothold in the ratings and the culture. If I were to get hyperspecific and rate the season as a whole, it would likely fall one or two tenths of a points below dead-center. 2.3 or 2.4. Which isn’t horrible, but you can be better, Modern Family. You can be a 4. Ish.

Photo: Peter "Hopper" Stone/ABC