There are all sorts of ways to have an effect on people (and animals, apparently), and this week finds the Dunphys-Pritchetts in various states of influence with office politics, a college interviewer, your teenage son, a dog who loves you. It’s interesting that these four plots barely intersect at all, enough to disjointedly seem like they should be on different shows. Wouldn’t Claire and/or Phil be all over Alex’s Princeton interview?

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At any rate, some of our Modern Family members find that the best way to make friends and influence people is by claiming an entirely new persona. This is especially entertaining for Mitchell, as he goes from office nag at his current job to life of the office party at Pritchett Closets. The everyone-at work-likes-me-but-they-don’t-like-you trope has been played out before (Friends), but here Modern Family kicks it up a notch for Mitch and Claire. In only a few days, Mitch has created office nicknames for everyone, is on the funny email circuit, and has even drafted a karaoke partner. But poor Claire’s efforts to be a friend and manager (a “franager”) only leave her further isolated from the lunch crowd at the Pasta Factory. So Mitch steps up to play the bad work cop for Claire, helping her out but embracing his real office self in the bargain. It’s a relief on all sides.

Alex, on the other hand, finds that a personality just like her partying sister’s is enough to impress the Princeton interviewer when nothing else will, to set her apart from an ocean of debate club/orchestra-playing applicants. We don’t know where Mitchell’s sprightly social self comes from (although there may be a bit of Cam in there), but the osmosis that comes from listening to Haley’s insipid phone conversations lets Alex tell one of Haley’s stories as her own pretty easily. Alex would be wise to take advice from the savvy Haley in matters like this: She has a lot more social caliber, after all.

Phil being Phil, he inadvertently manipulates Luke into getting what he wants: more time with him, by unintentionally playing hard-to-get by spending more time with Andy. The fake open-house run is particularly inspired, as is the neck-tickling. But Luke is so devastated by the loss of his father’s attention that Phil even manages a hug out of him at the end, no small feat from a teenage boy. Phil is so obviously ignoring Luke in favor of Andy that his surprise when Luke calls it out is a bit of a stretch, but at least it leads to the confirmation of unbreakable Phil-Luke bond.

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Perhaps the most powerful Dunphy-Pritchett of all is not little Joe, who has the power to make his father get rid of his beloved dog due to the rash in the episode title, but Stella the French bulldog. Just by being her cute self, she has Jay leaving work early to rush home and make her a steak, and Cam pulling T-shirts off of Lily’s stuffed animals. There’s a reason why W.C. Fields said never to work with animals or children, and it’s because Stella immediately soaks up all the attention in the scene, whether she’s getting slobbered on by Cam or ignored by Lily. Still, Jay’s goodbye speech with her is beyond-sweet, as is his readiness to call her out for being a hero for eating Gloria’s face cream.

Manny, as is so often the case, gets the shaft, as his allergic symptoms related to Stella are pretty much ignored. (Although, he could be making them all up. He did have to take a three-hour nap after the Downton Abbey marathon. He’s right, that family is exhausting.)

In season six, the Dunphy-Pritchetts have already tread a lot of familiar territory, and this episode doesn’t really break any new ground. Keeping all four stories into separate, parallel slots loses the chance for any sort of tension or momentum between them. What would keep the Phil-Luke-Andy story, for example, from being shuffled into a different episode during any other week?

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So viewers have to search harder for the connections, and it’s helpful when the show offers some parallels among its many characters, like both Mitchell and Alex donning different, looser personas this episode. Phil is just as much Phil whether he’s doing mall pranks with Andy or Luke, or pretending to be a plastic surgeon from Tuscon married to Zoe Saldana (Andy: “This is the perfect neighborhood to raise a mixed-race family”). But a little French bulldog can turn our most cantankerous character into a marshmallow, one who can barely get through a sincerely touching goodbye speech without crying, and it’s always valuable to see a different side of a character who, at this point, we believe we know pretty well.

Stray observations:

  • Modern Family performer of the week: It’s hard to picture a time when this wouldn’t be Sarah Hyland, but Haley continues to be just a whirlwind of delight: “Who is that, Denise? Put that dirty hooker on the phone.” Also her searing put-downs of the hapless Alex: “I was talking to the mirror.”
  • At least Alex gets one good counterpoint in: All Haley had to do to get into her college was like its Facebook page.
  • Full disclosure: The Stella story could be resonating with me because I maintain that if my parents had had dogs before they had kids, they never would have had kids. Unconditional love from a creature that you don’t even have to send to college! My stern dad also turned into a complete marshmallow.
  • The two saddest words in the English language: “What party?”
  • Loved Andy and Phil’s portrait from the mall, that was perfect. You want to scan that before it gets messed up.
  • Larry the cat is having none of this Stella business.
  • “I was a closeted gay kid at sports camp. I spent the week in mid-faint!”
  • Jay’s rules for Stella could apply to so many of us: “Stay away from cars, don’t eat anything pointy, and be a good girl.”
  • I’ve inherited the Modern Family beat from Joshua Alston, who has left us with an extremely high bar for these episodic reviews. Thanks Joshua!

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