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Some sitcoms work despite their premises.  The faster the constraining "situation" is dropped, the better.  But Modern Family is shaping up to be one of those rare comedies that actually derives unexpected humor from its premise.  The show promises to explore the frontiers of the American family, the strange new shapes it is assuming and how we are dealing with those forms.  And so far it's done exactly that.  Without getting preachy or in-your-face about its atypical couples and blended families, the writers are showing genuine interest in the situations that arise from having a gay partnered son, or having a father who's a stepdad to a little Colombian kid.

The framework for this examination is particularly delightful this week, I think.  Jay wants to be alone to fly his RC planes, and Claire has invited Manny over to play with Luke (who's only interested in pantsless trampoline jumping with a cardboard box over his head).  When Manny arrives, Claire is fighting with middle daughter Alex over whether Alex will wear a dress to an upcoming wedding.  So Gloria takes Alex to the mall for a girlfriend heart-to-heart, while Manny insists on sitting down with Claire and listening to her troubles.

I'm starting to think that Manny — not necessarily the actor, although he's just adorable; the way Manny is written — is the secret ingredient on this show.  His precocious interest in emulating adult conversation (presumably arising from his status as an only child) allows the writers to leapfrog certain questions of realism and land straight in comedy.  Manny's desperate to avoid contact with Luke, so he wanders into the kitchen to ask excitedly whether the cookies Claire is sliding onto the cooling rack were her own recipe.  "Nope, I just put 'em in the oven," she mutters.  "And added the secret ingredient of caring?" enthuses Manny.

Manny's role as Claire's sounding board is balanced by the conversation between Gloria and Alex at the mall.  After Gloria establishes her bona fides by answering Alex's personal questions (how many men have you slept with, where are your tattoos), she tries to get past the mom barrier by letting Alex know that she doesn't have to compete with her sister Haley in the looks department — that she's plenty beautiful on her own, and she's going to care about being beautiful when the boys start catching her eye.  (Starting with the waiter: "Why do you think we are the only people with bread?")

Meanwhile, Jay doesn't know what to do with Phil, who comes over to "hang" on a dare from Claire.  Phil tags along as Jay takes his plane out for a spin, but he's clearly ruining the peace and solitude that men look for in their hobbies.  After Phil claims he could have been a pilot, he inquires, "What would happen if you turned the remote off and then back on real fast?"  "Yeah, you would have been a great pilot," Jay grumbles.  In an act of thinly veiled hostility, he sends Phil sprinting across the field with a big hoop ("you can't go too far," Jay assures him) and then hits him in the face with the plane while ostensibly attempting to "thread the needle."

And in the most predictable (but still quite funny) twist on the idea of the odd couple, Mitchell is forced by Cameron to set foot in the dreaded Costco to buy diapers ("I'm discerning," he insists; "Official slogan for snobs," Cameron interprets), then goes nuts when he realizes all the things he can buy in great quantity and at low prices.  Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet really sell this bit; I love the way they play off each other, even though I've been more skeptical of their particular third of the premise in comparison to the others.  Their plotline is a throwaway, but a lovingly executed one.

Three episodes in, and I think we're seeing nothing but expanding potential for this show.  And it's not because it's starting from somewhere and going somewhere else — but because it's got so much territory to explore right where it's plopped itself down.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

- Nice to see Reginald Hudlin's name pop up in the credits as director; you may remember him from House Party and Boomerang.  Apparently he's been writing Black Panther comics for Marvel, too.

- Some gags on sitcoms are funny 'cuz they're true.  The garbage bag sitting forlornly by the couch while Phil watches the baseball game is one of those gags.  (Even funnier: Phil asking Dylan, "On your way out, would you mind taking out that garbage?")

- Gloria believes men need their hobbies, "whether you are risking your life or flying little planes from a safe distance."

- "We're going to have a diaper shed."

- "The box says 12 and up."

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