For all the chaos that defines the current lives of the families that make up Modern Family—Joe growing up, Luke and Manny preparing for college, Lily becoming more independent, and Haley and Alex struggling to define their lives, and the parents that cope with all of it—the show hasn’t spent all that much time digging into how everyone is handling everything. More often than not the various transitional periods these characters are experiencing work as a kind of window dressing; they inform the plot and comedy of each episode, and the general structure of the season, but there’s no real sense of the reality everyone is living with. “Alone Time,” while certainly an episode packed with chaotic situations and ever-escalating moments of ridiculousness, is anchored by the season’s first real exploration of where these people are in their lives.

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The scene that opens the episode sets the stage perfectly. As Cam tries to get Lily ready for softball, and Gloria and Joe go through some of Lily’s old toys, Mitchell opens up to his father about needing some alone time. He’s been swamped with work and all the duties that come with Lily’s various activities. Plus there’s been the presence of Pam and her new baby, though that’s not mentioned for some strange reason. However, add it to the list of things that have Mitchell longing for one night alone at the club in the desert to read, eat steak, and swim in the pool.

When Jay tells him to just do it, and Cam eventually agrees despite his extreme hesitancy and clinginess, Mitchell grabs his bag and heads to the desert. It’s the first in a series of domestic jailbreaks, as Alex must flee her school, Cam must escape the loneliness of the empty house, and Claire and Phil eventually have to run away from their own home as its overrun by a stressed out Alex, a superbly dumb Luke, an emotionally devastated Haley, and a reappearing Dylan for some reason.

Before highlighting some of the more interesting emotional components of these storylines, it should be said that “Alone Time” is rapid-fire with its joke delivery, and many of them land. This is a funny episode, the first since “Do You Believe In Magic” to really embrace the ridiculousness of every premise. The reason the jokes work though is because they’re rooted in real life drama, but exaggerated for the sake of the sitcom. Heartbreak, studying stress, sickness, loneliness, and the constant presence of needy kids is all present here, but it’s turned up well past 11. It’s fun watching Alex break down, growing nastier before she becomes delirious, and the number of problems that face Cam when he seeks company with Gloria, Manny, and Joe escalate in a way that feels controlled in its chaos, unlike the messiness of “Pig Moon Rising.”

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The comedy does enough of the heavy lifting to make “Alone Time” one of the better episodes of the season, but it’s the genuine emotional insight that elevates it even further. While I may not be a parent, Claire and Phil’s ever-increasing frustration with their children still feels relatable. Their issues aren’t tied to each kid’s specific problem, but rather the result of feeling like their life isn’t turning out just how they had hoped. That doesn’t mean they regret anything, but rather that they’d assumed their kids would be out of the house by now, leaving room for Claire and Phil to move on with their own lives. But, like the elusive balloon at the crashed graduation party, that “next chapter” is out of reach. I think most of us, no matter how happy our lives may be, can relate to feeling trapped, or like you’re on some predetermined path with no more fun twists and turns.

Similarly, Mitchell’s coveted night in the desert doesn’t go as planned when his father shows up, assuming that Mitchell wasn’t going to actually stand up to Cam and take his night off. While Cam is trying to juggle helping out Manny with his love life, Gloria with her fever, and Joe with his missing cape, Mitchell is stuck being in the general presence of his father. They don’t actually spend any time together, but they’re constantly in each other’s orbit. In a particularly well-crafted scene a waiter does his best to address the needs of both Mitchell and Jay, sitting at separate tables and yet unable to really stop interacting with each other.

Again, these storylines work as comedy, but there’s something meaningful and heartfelt in each resolution that sees this episode find the Modern Family sweet spot. While Claire and Phil might not have the middle-aged life they want just yet, they still have each other and a spontaneous screening of Thelma & Louise in the park. Cam may be without Mitchell for the night but he’s still needed, helping Manny secure a date, Gloria get over her sickness, all while making sure Joe’s self-esteem as a “superhero” never falters. Then there’s Mitchell and Jay, who have no choice but to reluctantly admit that, over the years, they’ve grown closer to one another. It’s only “reluctant” at first, as they recognize that it’s made everything easier, so much so that a game of catch, with Jay teaching Mitchell so that he can bond with Lily, doesn’t end in tears. Everyone’s come a long way, but there’s still so much life left to live, and it’s better spent with the ones we love.

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Stray observations

  • That “pre-recorded seduction” was all kinds of creepy, but kudos to Claire for being into it.
  • Luke: “It’s for an epic senior prank.” Alex: “Don’t make it too epic. How will you top it next year?”
  • Why is Dylan here? I don’t understand. Go away forever, Dylan.
  • Phil realizes that him and Claire basically own an apartment for three adults to live in. “We’re the Ropers.”

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