After the lovely and funny cohesion of “Closet? You’ll Love It!” a few weeks back, Modern Family’s “Spring Break” return is like a crazed grab bag of vaguely spring-break-related (or not related) themes. Haley takes Alex to Woodstock. Lily’s at a scout camp. Cam is performing in the faculty follies. Phil feels threatened by Luke.

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That’s a lot to cram into 24 minutes: How can each of these little plotlines reach full completion with an average of six minutes apiece? You wonder if the Modern Family creators have all these plots on little cards that they just shuffle, depending on who’s on vacation on a particular week (like Manny this episode, apparently). There really isn’t anything happening here that screams “spring break” over just an idle “Saturday.” Random pairings of our MF players like Cam and Gloria and Mitch and Jay are appreciated, but Modern Family feels less chaotic if there’s a stronger theme umbrella over all of these plots. If there’s any kind of theme we can also pull out of that grab bag this week, I guess it would be teamwork, with some times when only family can help (and some times when they shouldn’t).

The duos of Cam and Gloria and Haley and Alex offer the best examples of this. Alex needs to take her mind off of her college acceptances; Haley introduces her to the wonders of a Long Island Iced Tea at a music festival, then saves her from getting in to a van with a guy named Weasel. She then rightly squashes Alex’s devastation over not getting into Harvard by reminding her how awesome she’s always been, because who would know better than her sister how hard Alex has worked all these years? And it is helpful for Alex to get taken down a peg or two before she goes off to a school where she’ll be surrounded by eggheads like herself. What Haley lacks in school smarts, she certainly makes up for in logic.

The Cam and Gloria pairing is more symbiotic: She needs drama to replace her soap operas, but she also helps Cam by revealing that his rival Cats performer was playing the audience for sympathy all along. The good news: Cam is being unselfish for once; the bad news: I’m not even sure what the point of his Cats rival’s revenge scheme was. In the end, Gloria gets two grown men in cat costumes fighting in a fountain, all she’s ever wanted (but where was Joe? Or Manny?).

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Mitch and Jay and Lily are more poignant: Mitch wrongly believes that Lily needs to be rescued from camp, when really the best thing he can do is stay away, even though Jay didn’t rescue him from theater camp years ago. Mitch believes his role as a father includes showing Lily that he’s always there for her; Jay thinks fathering involves letting (making) kids work things out on their own. But one of the most humbling things about parenting is how everything our kid does brings up issues from when we went through the same thing years ago.

There are shades of this longevity with Phil and Luke, even though they’re the most contentious here, and so don’t really fit in with the other plotlines. But it’s beyond humbling for Phil to see Luke besting him in the “bajonic and the trampolitan arts.” Luke started out as Phil’s best sidekick and playmate; as Luke gets older, Phil is obviously going to be concerned with how that relationship will change, or even being usurped by a younger, stronger version of himself.

Because there’s an underlying theme (in again, three out of the four plots), in that all the kids are growing up. Haley helps Alex so much that when she gets home, she doesn’t even need her favorite dinner and a teddy bear with a “Harvard Sucks” T-shirt from Claire. Luke is making out with girls at parties. Lily is embarrassed in front of the other eight-year-olds when her dad shows up. The ultimate goal of parenting is to essentially work yourself out of a job, to do the job so well that eventually you won’t need to anymore, Which is why it’s nice to have Jay around, smoking cigars and dispensing advice at campfires. Because even as kids get older, they still need their parents on some level. And, as Jay points out, things work out, and eventually you get to see your kids be completely wrong about their own kids: “It’s fun!” And even though our family can help us out, sometimes, as Mitch and Jay find, the best way to help is by not helping at all.

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Stray observations:

  • My favorite performer this week: the little brownie at the campfire. “I’m bored. Can we go to sleep early?”
  • “Jon Banjovi”
  • There were a few hidden jokes in the background, like the Grease chorus chiming in and resembling a Greek chorus (alongside the littlest Greased Lightning ever).
  • Also, an Annie Get Your Gun shoutout: “Everything I can do you can do better.” “No I can’t.” “Yes you can.”
  • Were they using stunt people for Phil and Luke on the trampoline? It didn’t look like it, so once again, Ty Burrell proves that he excels in the art of physical comedy. It looked like Nolan Gould’s Luke was playing the banjo for real as well.
  • The Dunphy history of acrobatics on the trampoline is “as old as man’s quest to fly.”
  • “This is literally the nicest gesture I have ever witnessed. And I’m from Canada.”

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