Modern Family is always at its best when there’s a little chaos to its stories. It suits the type of humor the show often shoots for and, more importantly, it works to the strength of the ensemble cast. The more heartfelt moments certainly keep the show grounded and keep the characters moving forward, but it’s the chaos that keeps things fresh and funny. That’s never more important for a sitcom than when it moves into its later seasons. Now in its seventh season, Modern Family is more than predictable, but predictability can also mean reliability. For the most part, tonight’s premiere, “Summer Lovin,” is a solid, reliable episode of Modern Family, but it’s also one that perhaps shows how hard it will be for the show to remain compelling and surprising week in and week out.

“Summer Lovin” lives and dies by its structure. Starting off in May, where Haley runs to the beach with Claire and contemplates interrupting Andy’s proposal to Beth, the episode then jumps ahead one month after each commercial break, moving through an entire summer of shenanigans before coming to an end right before Alex heads off to college. I say that the episode lives and dies by this structure because it at once allows for the brisk pace of the episode, which is great for moving the narrative forward to a more consequential place, while also making sure nothing really sinks in. For the most part that doesn’t matter because this is a fluff episode in the best way possible, filled with solid jokes and comedic beats, but it’s certainly not the best version of this show.

Still, “Summer Lovin” has plenty of laughs, and that’s promising for sitcom embarking on its seventh season. There are still plenty of problems–mainly, the meddling of Phil and Claire isn’t so much funny anymore as it is troubling–but for the most part the episode is a nice reminder of why, in its earliest days, this was one of the better network sitcoms. There’s an energy and pace to the episode, partly enabled by the time-jumping structure, that makes the otherwise stale storylines pop. The episode sees Jay and Gloria looking for a preschool for Joe, Mitchell following his artistic muse during his unemployment, much to the annoyance of Cam, and the Dunphy’s dealing with the fallout of Haley’s inaction, which involves getting back together with Dylan.

There’s nothing exciting or fresh about these storylines, but the structure gives them room to breathe. Suddenly they’re not holding any real weight, not burdened with needing to dig in too deep. For instance, Haley’s realization that she missed her opportunity with Andy isn’t dragged out over months but concluded in half an hour, which is certainly the way to deal with such a predictable story. In fact, most of the storylines benefit from the hurried pace. Who needs months of Mitchell trying various creative outlets to cure his unemployment angst? Nobody, which is why Modern Family gets in and gets out, giving Mitchell a painting obsession before getting a dose of reality from Jay, who tells him that this is a mid-life crisis and that it’s time for him to move past it and get back to work.

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The same can be said of Alex and Sanjay’s plan to break up right before they head off to college. If their potential, or rather scheduled breakup took place across numerous episodes, the beats would stagnate. “Summer Lovin” speeds up the process and gets to the good stuff, which is moving Alex away and seeing how that changes the dynamic of the show and the Dunphy family. An added bonus: skipping right over the deeply unfunny bits of Gloria and Jay looking for a preschool for Joe. Chicken killing only goes so far.

“Summer Lovin” also has quite a few moments that craft laughs by exploiting the structure of the episode. There’s the cut from Andy having a breakdown and eating a cupcake after finding about Haley’s thwarted plan to break up his proposal to him one month later having gained 20 pounds. I hate that I laughed at a fat suit and makeup, but I did. Then there’s the bit that sees Mitchell and Cam worrying more and more about where their money is coming from. Lily, in the first month, worries that they’re poor, and the bit goes further with each passing month. Next, she’s eating a ketchup sandwich–“good, she found something,” says Mitchell–before, in the next month, bringing chicken salad to the Dunphy house and urgently telling Claire that they “need the foil back.” The jokes build from month to month, and those types of callback jokes have always worked for Modern Family.

Ultimately, “Summer Lovin” isn’t the best example of what Modern Family does well, but it is a promising start to its seventh season. It’s a loose, funny episode that uses its narrative structure to build jokes upon other jokes and move the plot along to a place that’s potentially more interesting. Not bad for a show this far into its run.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to weekly reviews of the now Emmy-snubbed Modern Family. Gwen has left the beat, so you’re stuck with me now.
  • Mitchell getting exasperated when paying bills was solid physical comedy. Something about him being stressed always works.
  • There’s no way the B. Willis Jungle Gym is better than the Learnin’ Barn.
  • Phil wearing Dylan’s “Oyvey” shirt had me chuckling. It should just be a stupid running gag, but it worked for me.
  • “I think I’ve outgrown my boat.”
  • Cam’s inspiration is sometimes dictated by how much paint he has left. Totally understandable.
  • Another great comedic bit: Cam continually poking in from out of the frame when Charlie decides not to offer Mitchell a job.
  • Mitchell’s painting titles need some work.
  • “If I can make a bong out of a carrot, I’m pretty sure I can make you a plate.” Never change, Dylan.

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