After two great episodes in a row following a wonky start, Modern Family looks like it finally might be returning to its first-season form. We’re gonna give it a few more weeks to be totally sure, but right now, we’re feeling better about the show than we have all fall. Like last week’s episode, this one was pretty much spot-on (funny! sweet! kind of kooky!) all throughout. A big part of this sudden upswing seems to be the show’s rediscovery of a really well-executed awkwardness — not the smug kind that’s happy to use any little twinge of discomfort as a punchline or the kind that psychotically revels in making you squirm and groan in tortured empathy, but the kind that builds up and simmers over such low heat for most of the episode that you might not even realize its actually happening.
We were hoping this would be the first episode all season that somehow managed to not use Gloria being from Colombia as an excuse for something, but those dreams are on hold for another week. This time, at least, it’s her doing the blaming and not Jay, which makes it seem more like well-qualified self-skewering and not the vaguely xenophobic blathering of a guy who might say worse things if he wasn’t married to the lady. Picking on her husband for letting a little bellyache sideline him from an afternoon of mall-browsing, Gloria shrugs, “In Colombia we couldn’t go run to the hospital for every little sniffle or dislocated shoulder.” (Meanwhile, the scene flashes back to some other time that she body-slammed herself against a window-frame to fix an arm popped-out in a ping-pong match — which is one of the few bits of physical comedy not involving boobies that Sofia Vergara has gotten to deliver in quite some time. We want more! Stick the lady in a turtleneck and let her get her Carol Burnett on, please.) She blows off Jay’s ailment, but of course Manny is on his side, armed with every precocious hypochondriac’s best friend, some diagnose-yourself-website most definitely not called WebMD. (“Describe the pain.” “It’s like I’m being stabbed, but like I ate a bad scallop that’s stabbing me from the inside.” “That’s colorful, but there’s no box for that.”) Turns out its a bit more serious than food poisoning, and then there’s kind of a cliffhanger! Won’t muddle the suspense by saying much more, but it was nice to see everything possibly looping back to Jay’s pseudo-health-scare of the later part of last season, although this time he seems way less concerned than everyone else — especially Gloria, whose second-best moment of the episode may well land her an Emmy nod for Best Gurney Clutching. (Grey’s cast, you’ve been warned.)
Not much has been said about Mitchell’s intimacy and personal-space issues since the big kiss-out earlier in the season, but this week they’re brought up again by a quite unexpected catalyst: Cameron’s mom! It starts out sweet enough, with her coming in from Missouri and Cam unable to contain his adoration (“I don’t want to overstate this, but my mom is the greatest woman who ever lived. She raised four kids, two barns and a whole lot of hell.”), but it pretty quickly turns weird for Mitch. He knows Cam loves her and he wants to love her, too, but here’s the rub (so much rubbing!): Barb (Celia Weston) just can’t seem to keep her doughy Midwestern mitts off the poor guy. He tries to make her handsiness (“It was like she was blind and wanted to see what my thighs looked like!”) obvious to Cam, but only winds up appearing to deliver the most terrifically feeble come-ons of all time (“Put your fingers all over your fanny — your magic fingers!”). We are really tired of Mitch and Cam being at odds with each other every single week — they are so great together, at least in our vague memory of some time when they were allowed to actually be happy for substantial stretches of time! — but this led to one of their best fights yet: “Show me on Lily’s doll where my mother touched you.” They finally talk it out, but maybe not far enough because just when you think the whole strange issue is solved it only gets stranger. This involves a bathtub.
Despite all our constant doting on Luke and despite the fact that he didn’t appear in this episode at all, this was still one of the best weeks for the Dunphys in quite some time. So much happened, so many ongoing conflicts tangled into these relatively short minutes of screen-time: Haley being a dolt but in kind of smart ways (on making out with her math tutor: “What? We only do this when I get one right!”), Claire’s fixation on Haley dating a better boy than Dylan, Phil’s growing man/boy/dude-crush on Dylan (“I was a lot like you in high school, only my hair was shorter and my guitar was a flute”), Dylan’s heartbreak over Haley dumping him (by text, natch —“Sadface emoticon! I can feel the hurt through the phone!”), and Haley’s increasingly sweet relationship with her dad. Alex even had some great moments, even though she disappeared after the first few minutes: “I’m just saying — she’s never gonna get a job, and how do we know the right Middle Eastern businessman wouldn’t treat her great?” There was a bit of a tangled plot — some missed connections, some misunderstandings, and one giant waffle-bowl ice cream sundae thing that we would trade all of our left body parts to taste in real life — but it was all in service of pretty great comedy and unusually revealing character development (Phil is now so clearly in the early stages of a severe midlife crisis and/or needs some adult male friends like STAT!). For the first time this season, the show finally felt as if it was making an effort, but also not trying too hard — and we’re grateful for that almost as much as we are for the fact that this wasn’t forced into some preposterously cheesy Thanksgiving episode.