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Modern Family built its reputation on its novelty. Between its mockumentary approach to the family sitcom and its multi-cultural, multi-generational ensemble, Modern Family has succeeded by leaning toward stories only it could tell in this way using these characters. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, and if my bank account looked remotely like that of Steven Levitan or Christopher Lloyd, I would not be casting a critical eye on the approach. But “Strangers In The Night” shows how well the show can work when it’s plugging its characters into not only rhythmically familiar situations, but actual plots deployed on sitcoms past.

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I’m referring to the Dunphys plot, which echoes Jan Brady’s torrid, imaginary affair with George Glass in The Brady Bunch. Alex is clearly the Jan of the Dunphys, so when flowers mysteriously begin arriving in the mailbox, the family can’t figure out whose admirer might have left them, never considering Alex as a legitimate possibility. Even Phil wonders if he might have been asking for trouble when he wore his cheer shorts while washing the car. When Alex reveals she has a boyfriend, the response is predictable: Phil, in cool-dad mode, wants to celebrate Alex’s good fortune, while Haley and Claire doubt Alex’s beau exists.

The story feels sharp immediately, and it’s executed smartly. It’s obvious Alex will be acquitted and the family will owe her an apology for doubting her, but Chuck Tatham’s script pushes it forward with a second suspected fake boyfriend in the matter of hours. Modern Family sometimes veers toward cruelty with its depiction of how Alex fits in with the Dunphys, and the meaner way to play this would have been to have the family so shocked by the notion of Alex being attractive to someone, they become convinced her boyfriend is imaginary even as supporting evidence piles up.

Instead, Alex’s story becomes even more implausible with the introduction of Latino bad boy Teddy Keys, making Phil and Claire’s reaction to the story reasonable, a far funnier and more sensitive execution of the same basic idea. The scene in Alex’s bedroom when she reveals Teddy’s existence while Phil and Claire scan the room for clues to prove Alex is pulling a Keyser Söze is pretty brilliant. Plots that combine Phil and Claire in a parenting mission rather than placing them at odds usually yield a fun episode because Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen do such great work together.

The Tucker-Pritchetts story is initially intriguing too, beginning with Mitch and Cam installing a schmancy new white designer sofa and becoming obsessed with keeping it spotless. It’s such a tiny idea I expected some clever deployment using only Mitch, Cam and Lily, but then Kristen Johnston saunters in as Brenda, Mitch’s sad-sack, divorceé co-worker and takes things in a weirdly unexpected direction. I was confused by my ambivalence towards the story because Modern Family usually does pretty well with its guest-star game, but this story left me slightly cold, even though I never actually minded it when “Strangers In The Night” looked in Mitch and Cam’s direction.

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Part of my issue was the ending, in which Mitch and Cam resolve to let a woman wearing a clay face mask and a grubby child sit on their designer sofa because they look sweet sitting there having a moment. It reminded me of “Other People’s Children,” when Mitch and Cam decided to let Lily wear a princess costume to their wedding because who were they to tell someone not to represent their authentic selves at a gay wedding? I’m sorry, but no.

Modern Family likes to play with and upend gay stereotypes, and while it’s fine to mine that stuff for jokes, it gets harder to land stories in which the resolution requires on Mitch and Cam shedding all their stereotypically gay hang-ups. I’m not saying all gay men would fret over a couch or quibble about what their daughter wears to their wedding, but I feel confident these particular gay men would feel some type of way about both of those scenarios.

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Oddly, I never felt bored or offended with the story, which is the same way I felt about the Pritchett-Delgado story, which found Jay plotting to get out of one of Gloria’s social functions by taking her to an elaborate dog birthday party. This wasn’t an A-level plot, but the execution was sound, and none of it felt like it was dragging down the episode. The Manny reveal with The Sting was also pretty clever. But it kind of made me feel bad for Nolan Gould, who has been sidelined in a major way this season. Luke used to own the set-up where they make a character look like a mastermind before revealing in a talking-head that he was flying by the seat of his pants. Now he’s barely around.

Stray observations:

  • I felt weird about Latino bad boy Teddy Keys. Hooray for diverse casting and everything, but casting a Latino actor (Carlito Olivero) to play Alex’s “freaky” delinquent boyfriend is pretty exhausting.
  • So the correct term for the ceremony is a “bark mitzvah,” not a “bar muttsvah.” Now I know.
  • Brenda on her divorce: “We were married 20 years.” Mitch: “Well that’s a nice round number.”
  • Lily: “So Larry’s allowed to sit on the couch and I’m not?” Cam: “Well, Larry is white.”

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