If there’s a single takeaway from the final season premiere of Modern Family, it’s that kicking a season off with storytelling that’s built around actual actions and consequences is a smart choice. Too many seasons past have started off with lackluster episodes that have trouble situating the characters in any relevant time or place, be it emotionally or physically. “I Love A Parade” is a nice change of pace because it finds the time to push these characters in new directions, even if the show itself is still feeling a little stale as it heaves itself into its final season.

Essentially, so many other progressive sitcoms with a unique voice populate our TVs now, which means the ABC stalwart feels a little dated. It’s a time capsule of sorts, but that’s not always a bad thing. There are certain familiar rhythms to the show that, though worn, can be reliable when deployed in the right way. “I Love A Parade” isn’t a fantastic episode by any means, but in spite of the lack of truly meaningful storylines, it’s a solid season premiere that finds the show hitting a few good notes, even if there’s more than a few missed spots.

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I mention Modern Family feeling dated; it’s almost as if the tenth season premiere knows it, because the episode takes place on the Fourth of July. It makes for a weird disconnect in the viewing experience, the patriotism and excitement at odds with the current season. But hey, these things happen, and all you can do is embrace the disconnect. Things pick up with Gloria and Jay singing their Red, White, and Blue hearts out while Joe laments that another year has passed, his trauma clear with each passing episode. They’re particularly excited about the annual parade, an excitement that reaches a fever pitch when Jay’s lifelong dream of being the Grand Marshal comes true.

Jay’s excitement is eventually tampered by that pesky thing called his wife’s happiness. She’s upset that Manny won’t be home for the holiday—the less said about Manny’s sudden fear of bridges the better—and therefore won’t be able to take part in their annual tradition of watching the fireworks while eating apple pie. You read that right, Modern Family isn’t afraid to go that American. Anyways, Gloria’s disappointment, and the feelings of uncertainty about the future, is really the defining feeling of the episode. Each plot in “I Love A Parade” in some way deals with the fear of failure and change.

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That’s a good theme for the episode to hang its hat on. As these characters age, they’re facing new challenges, and that means a fair amount of uncertainty is waiting down the road. For Luke, that means worrying about heading off to community college. As he puts it, it’s the hardest thing he’s ever tried, and his anxiety about failing manifests itself in his indecisiveness about choosing classes and his halfhearted enthusiasm about competing in a hot dog eating contest with Phil. All those hot dogs are sitting right there in front of him, and there’s glory on the other side of the consumption, but it’s a daunting task. But Phil knows exactly what to say: take it one dog at a time. Fear of failure means Luke cares about something for once, and with any luck community college will result in some necessary character growth, because Luke has been stagnant for a very long time (though Manny retains his title as the character who has completely failed to adapt over the years).

There are certainly uninteresting or undercooked aspects of this episode that don’t tie into the theme in any elegant way. In particular, Claire’s vision of a future where she isn’t needed, where her advice isn’t sought out, is too underexplored to really make an impact. But outside of that misfire, “I Love A Parade” is largely a promising start to the season. I was wary of Cam and Mitchell taking on the responsibility of caring for Pam’s son Cal at the end of last season, but, at least in the premiere, it’s allowed the two characters to find their groove again. Those are characters that work best as anxious, complementary parents, and with Lily all grown up—into quite the dictator, apparently—Cal presents the show with an opportunity to reset Cam and Mitchell to their most interesting versions. Watching them navigate the renewed pressures of parenthood is the best part of the episode, finding a balance between good comedy and some heartfelt emotional beats.

Haley’s storyline doesn’t quite find that same balance, as Arvin takes off for Switzerland, which leaves her to think about her future with the legitimate genius. Much like Cal, I’m always wary of Dylan’s presence on Modern Family, especially in these later seasons, but his return here is used in a way that feels meaningful. It allows for Haley to experience doubt about her relationship, and not in a way that’s juvenile. Rather, she’s experiencing something more grown up, as Dylan’s vague romantic feelings serve to have her questioning her own complacency, and what she might feel for him.

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Who knows where these stories are headed, or if Modern Family will follow through with them at all. For now though, they’re solid building blocks, in terms of both narrative and emotional storytelling. 


Stray observations

  • Modern Family reviews are back for one last season, because I’m determined to see this through and earn some sort of medal. And to get ahead of a few comments: yes, this show is still on, and yes, I know that your favorite show’s recaps were cut at some point and these are still hanging around, but there’s nothing I can do about that, and I also like to work for a paycheck.
  • “Has it been a year already?” *Insert joke about Modern Family being back again*
  • “I spent my childhood in a Banana Republic. It was the only store in my village with air conditioning.”
  • I laughed at Cam throwing the ball right in Cal’s face. I am a man of simple pleasures. It’s the “Football in the Groin had a football in the groin” theory of comedy.
  • Claire, bleary-eyed: “June?” Phil: “Yeah, gone.”
  • Haley: “I can’t believe Dylan got into my head.” Claire: “I can’t believe he got into nursing school.” To be fair, I bet he knows a thing or too about injuries and head trauma.

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