Are you spying on us, Modern Family show-runners? Just last week we were discussing how much we love it when the show’s characters are allowed out of their primly landscaped domiciles to interact with the other batty folks of the world, and now we get an episode totally full of exactly that.
Jay, we know, is intended to be a lovable jerk. But in recent weeks he’s proved to be more of … well, just a plain-old jerk. Weird off-hand statements about his wife’s body that we wouldn’t tolerate from a construction worker, plus some straight-up condescension (remember his, “Good work — whaddaya say we hit the jewelery store?” from last week, after Gloria drove her bike into the hedges?), have us feeling a little befuddled about the family patriarch, to be honest. At first, this week’s episode wasn’t helping matters. Gloria calls him up to tell him a couple they met on vacation last year is in town and wants to have dinner, and he reacts as if these folks are carriers of Ebola. In reality they’re just stone-cold dull — she’s obsessed with doohickeys on her phone, he names “listening” as his primary hobby — which is his own personal plague, but certainly doesn’t merit the ultimatum Jay delivers them over dinner. Back at home, Gloria finally, finally gets real, fully laying into him in one of the season’s most protracted dramatic scenes so far. But then, of course, she gets her own revenge, convincing the couple that Jay’s old-man mind is slipping. It’s kind of a cheap gag (yanked along by an admittedly funny mix-up scene in which Manny’s telling the McBoringsons about Jay’s feeble golf game and they think he’s talking about his mental slippage) but hell, we’ll take tired jokes about Jay’s age over tired jokes about Gloria’s boobies any day.
So far, the show has focused mostly on the present reality of Mitchell and Cameron — the day-to-day challenges of being a gay couple raising an adoptive daughter in suburbia, and all the touchy-feely mothers and squatting Reiki masters that go along with that. Maybe because of this, though, it’s always great when we get a glimpse into one of the guys’ pasts, and this week the past catches up with Mitch big-time. Out at the mall with Lily (who’s revealed to be a shoplifter with a penchant for harmonicas and aviators — watch out, mid-eighties Waylon Jennings) the fellas run into Tracy, Mitch’s girlfriend from when they were teenagers. “I want to hear all about Mitchell in high school,” Cameron demands. “Did he have a beard?” “Yeah, you’re looking at her,” Tracy sulks — but hey! She’s married now and seems happy, and Mich has Cam and Lil Miss Five Finger Discount, so there’s no reason anyone should feel weird about anything, right?
Oh, well, actually, it turns out Mitch and Tracy actually did the deed at their ten-year high-school reunion about eight years back, well after Mitch had exited the closet. And who’s that they spy Tracy nabbing an ice-cream cone for across the food court? Looks like a flame-haired kid who’s, yep, just about the right age to be Mitch’s awkward, nurse’s-office-conceived heterospawn. He breaks the news to Cam over dinner that night (cue excellently overwrought reaction from Cam; rival network TNT might know drama, but Eric Stonestreet knows duh-rama) and attempts to confront Tracy about it the next day, only to learn that — dun dun dun — this week’s new episode of Modern Family has borrowed a plot element from season three of 30 Rock, in which an adult with dwarfism is mistaken for a young child. Good thing the build-up was still charming. Also, we loved Mitch’s “You’re so gay, you can’t even think of real girls’ names!” and how he fell right into the same trap with his dad later — and that he and Jay were talking openly about his lack of ladyfriends, and hence semi-kinda-openly about his gayness. Almost redeemed this week for the old grump, even.
Alex was largely absent from the last few episodes, and we were wondering why — turns out she was just holed up somewhere studying, because apparently that’s all she does these days. We thought this season we might get to see a softer side of old-lesbian sandals, but if we can’t, it should at least always lead to some kind of character development on the Phil and Claire front, which we thankfully get this week. Alex is freaking out about some test that she’s pretty sure Sanjay Patel is gonna outscore her on, to the point that she develops some kind of insane jaw-stretching tic (“It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing, I’ve read like a hundred articles about it,” Claire fusses), which causes Luke to throw grapes at her and her parents to drag her out into the backyard for forced trampolining. When Sanjay beats her by twelve points, she accepts defeat: “Sanjay’s mom’s a surgeon and his dad’s a professor — I just have to do the best with what I’m given.” Phil and Claire are too distracted by their plans to go see Croctopus to listen (apparently they’re super into cheesy B-movies? Why are these people sometimes so awful and sometimes so great?), but it eventually dawns on them that she thinks they are stupid, which their being too obsessed with show times for a flick about a reptile-cephalopod hybrid to talk to their own kid seems to confirm.
They head to the movies anyway and, as they don their 3-D glasses and prepare to go suck down some smuggled-in candy and wine coolers, who should they run into but Sanjay’s parents, the surgeon and the professor? Claire, always ready to abandon any sign of her own personality to impress the parents of her kids’ schoolmates, changes course and drags Phil in after the Patels in order to make some kind of sad point about their also-smartness, but just winds up getting sad because, don’t you know, subtitled French films are like sooo mind-bendingly boring that you’d have to be an asshole or out to prove some vague point to your elitist middle-school daughter’s rival’s parents to sit through one. Which Claire does, but Phil does not. He escapes back to see Croctopus and emerges quite happy. Claire, meanwhile, falls asleep. Outside, they smugly show Mr. Patel how to validate his parking, thrill in telling him they did not like his smarty-pants movie, then smugly walk into a “not an exit door” — and, dammit, right back into our hearts.