Let’s start with the amazing! “Dude Ranch” saw the whole family (plus Dylan) on vacation at, uh, a dude ranch. They herd cattle, skeet shoot, and meet a creepy ranch hand who, surprise, has a crush on Gloria (not to worry, though, he’ll prove his worth by the end of the episode with a fantastic “organizing the search party” speech including nicknames for everyone).
As with other classic Modern Family vacation episodes, the major appeal of “Dude Ranch” is that it throws the entire family together in a new context. Rather than sticking to a rigid A, B, and C story, plotlines and character combinations are able to be more flexible, which yields a LOT of stories. We return to some perennial Modern Family issues, like Phil’s longing for respect from Jay, and Mitchell’s desire to butch up (but this time it’s because he and Cam are gonna adopt a baby boy! Hurrah!). Meanwhile, Dylan proposes to Haley, prompting Claire to flip out and send him running into the woods so that everyone goes Full Cowboy and splits up to look for him.
Also, Alex meets a sassy vacation boyfriend who shows her that there is more to life than reading Freakonomics and being snarky! WHERE IS THE MOVIE VERSION OF THIS UNLIKELY ROMANCE? He even interrupts her neurotic protesting with a kiss! Is she Meg Ryan? What is happening? I don’t know but I love it? Question marks?
Overall, there were so many plotlines that it felt like some of the weaker ones could’ve been cut. (Like, really? Gloria’s ears won’t pop from the plane so she’s yelling the whole trip? That’s that whole running joke?) But the stronger ones, to their credit, confronted issues we’ve seen before and managed to be honest, direct, and fun. Phil’s impressions of what it might look like for Jay to suddenly respect his cowboy skills were sad and sweet and basically had me physically nodding along in grateful appreciation. Yes, Modern Family, THAT is a great use of talking heads: to see something we couldn’t otherwise see, how one character secretly sees another or wants another to behave. And it was super satisfying by the end of the episode to see him finally stick up for himself to Jay.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention a few outstanding pieces of dialogue, like Luke’s historical analysis re: German firecrackers: “if they had these during the war, right now we’d all be knee deep in strudel.” And Dylan neighing in song. And Dylan telling Claire that if things were different, he would happily shack up with her and raise Haley, Luke and Alex as his own. Eh, you know what, let’s go ahead and just give a thumbs up to everything Dylan says. Unfortunately, the true big news of the episode was that he stayed in Wyoming to live an honest life as a ranch hand (SPIN-OFF. SPIN-OFF. I know I probably say things should be spin-offs really often, but seriously. Spin-off). Is he gone for good?
On to “When Good Kids Go Bad.” This episode saw each family unit deal with their own storylines till they came together at Mitchell and Cam’s house for the big announcement about the new adoption. The highlight was definitely the showcasing of New Lily as an innocent-looking but actually murderous child, repeatedly telling Mitch and Cam that she’s going to “kill the new baby” and sending them into a frantic spiral of arguing and blaming each other. “Well-behaved but super-dark Lily” is such a natural extension of “deadpan Baby Lily” that I really hope the show continues exploring this twisted streak in her personality this season.
And over at Phil and Claire’s house, we get our full daily serving of Crazy Claire, as she goes nuts trying to convince everyone that she’s right in arguing that Phil pushed her over at the supermarket. At first it was a little fun to hear her family poke fun at her for the constant need to be right, and then it just kind of got sad. Why are people on sitcoms so mean to each other? No one is that casually mean to each other in real life! People have feelings! When she reached into her bag, part of me was hoping it was going to be divorce papers or the business card of a family therapist, not a tape of the security camera footage from the supermarket. Yeesh.
Anyway, things picked up in the final act when the family came together and their individual sub-plots all exploded at once, in true Modern Family style. A good episode, if not quite up to the magic of “Dude Ranch.” Overall, the premiere did pretty well on Josh Kurp’s checklist of ways to improve, bringing the family together, holding off on the repeat characters, and maintaining the kid level at just the right amount. They didn’t quite come through on giving Cam and Mitch something new to do other than quibbling and pulling back on Claire’s psycho lever, but hey, that’s what the rest of the season is for! (And also the Dylan-on-a-dude-ranch spin-off. Not giving up on this. Who wants to sign my petition to ABC?)