There’s really no way around it: Modern Family stumbled into the winter break, churning out rote, stale episodes week after week. The show has been flailing for quite some time, every week bringing up the question of whether or not it would ever be able to capture, however briefly, that old spark again. The issue was that Modern Family, which once felt fresh and boasted some seriously stellar comedic timing, had built this season on stale sitcom premises. There’s been no ingenuity or spark all season long, despite the fact that last season’s finale managed to shake up the character dynamics.

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The relative slog that this season has been means that an episode like “Playdates” stands out for a very simple reason: it’s funny. It’s the best episode of the season in terms of punchlines, timing, and pacing, and it’s not even close. Modern Family is certainly more successful when it anchors its jokes in meaningful and heartfelt drama, but there’s not enough heart in the show after this many years to really carry an episode devoid of laughs. “Playdates” lands more jokes in its cold open than just about any entire episode this season.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat though: Jay and Gloria’s storyline, once again, is terrible. All the critiques of the first half of the season that I mentioned above apply to this subplot, which sees Gloria invite another couple over so that Joe can have a playdate, only to have Jay get angry that the father who’s much older than him keeps trying to show that they’re similar. Jay takes the old man’s presence as a personal affront, and what follows is a bevy of jokes that amount to “haha, old people.” There’s jokes about peeing during the night, hearing loss, lack of mobility. None of it lands, which means that when the episode pulls out a heartfelt coda near the end, where Gloria chastises Jay for not thinking about how she’s invited this other mom over because they’re both the outcasts at the school, the “old moms,” it’s jarring. It’s a genuinely nice moment, but falls flat because of everything that came before it.

The other two storylines in the episode work because their concepts are built upon awkwardness and chaos, which the show has always had success with. The first sees Mitchell arrive at the Dunphy house to claim his Uncle Mitchell Birthday Funday coupon from the kids. Of course, they forgot that he was coming over and so have nothing planned. They begin to panic and start making things up on the spot. Luke does an “omelet dance” that is literally him just dancing around while singing “it’s your birthday, I’m an omelet.” It’s so stupid, but it works. Luke has been such a dud this season; a brooding, boring teenager. Watching him let loose, and watching all the Dunphy kids try to make the day fun on the fly, is much more entertaining and in line with what we know about these characters. Plus, there’s the added relatability factor. We all know those family members who give amazing birthday presents, who never forget to call and wish you well, making your own forgetfulness (or cold-heartedness) seem absolutely despicable. If Gloria’s vulnerable confession didn’t work because of the comedy that came before it, the opposite is true of Mitchell’s Funday. When he tells the kids, after seeing Ray Liotta and talking to Barbra Streisand through an intercom, that just spending the day with them and watching them try to make it memorable for him was enough, it lands emotionally because of the preceding comedy.

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Still, the best storylines in the episode all revolve around awkward dinner invites. Cam invites the Canadian family that’s renting their room upstairs for dinner because he thinks that Lily has a crush on the young boy, Monty. Cam, because he can’t help but insert himself into the situation, gives Lily some tips on flirting, which would be a little awkward if it wasn’t so Cam. He has to be the expert on everything, and he never turns down an opportunity for a performance. He makes the whole situation about him, which is what he does. That makes it all the more hilarious when he sees Lily using those tactics to flirt with Monty’s Dad. It’s a solid payoff to what could have been nothing but a trifling B-plot.

Elsewhere, Claire and Phil are meeting up with some friends that they first met on vacation a few years ago. Phil is stoked to see his old buddy—he connects with and idolizes everyone after all—but Claire heads into the dinner angry because she’s noticed that their friends never pay the bill. Phil has paid three times in a row, so she instructs him to refrain this time around. What follows is scene after scene of increasingly awkward banter meant to delay the paying of the bill. While Keegan-Michael Key and Christine Lakin don’t really get the time to dig into their comedic abilities, the fact that the situation is so cringe-worthy manages to make up for the loss. The final reveal, which is that Phil and his buddy made a bet about how many crickets they could get their wives to secretly eat, and Phil now has to pay for five dinners, is a silly payoff, but I’d argue that it’s the sheer lunacy of it that makes it work. “Playdates” could have easily gone in the other direction and offered up straight confrontation. Instead, the show takes a left turn, and Key and Burrell really make it work. Really, that’s what makes “Playdates” stand out from the rest of the season in general; it works on a comedic level. It’s simple, but getting back to basics is what Modern Family desperately needs right now.

Stray observations

  • Cam’s first crush was on a statue of a Confederate General in front of the courthouse in his hometown.
  • Lily, who’s not impressed with her father’s giggling while he’s doing her nails: “It’s racist, daddy.”
  • Gloria is sick of Jay’s dated babyboomer references: “Say something I understand.”
  • “Next war. Keep going.”
  • “Are you a fan of the bacon?”
  • Jay still gets Netflix DVDs in the mail. Oh boy.

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