Ariel Winter, Chloe Csengery, Sarah Hyland

The most successful television shows wind up having to solve the same problems multiple times. Such is the case with Modern Family, which in its seventh season is operating without the imprimatur of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for the first time. Writing for rapidly growing children is always a challenge, especially when it comes to major life transitions like going away to college. When Haley went off to college in season four, the writers quickly backpedaled by having her arrested and expelled. The same problem is back with Alex ready to head to college, which won’t be quite as easy to write around.

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Alex’s absence at the Dunphy house will be deeply felt, as she’s the character best equipped to deliver the harshest burns. But the literally titled “The Day Alex Left For College” makes for a nice send-off, whatever that looks like for the character and for Ariel Winter. “College” is a treat because of how slowly it sneaks up you. All of the plots are recycled to some degree, which is a tough problem to fix at this stage of Modern Family’s life cycle. So when an episode begins with such a familiar setup as Phil dragging one of his kids to work with him in an effort to bond with them, it seems like a rough journey is ahead. But the longer “College” goes on, the funnier and more charming it gets, and the final act brings the episode to a satisfying and elegant conclusion. In that sense it feels like an episode from season three or four, when it seemed like certain wells had run dry, but the writers would find novel ways to tell the same stories.

The main plot, the one from the title, is a half-twist on the story in which Haley has a come-to-Jesus conversation with Alex at exactly the right moment. (“See You Next Fall” is a great example.) This version of it feels fresh because it’s true to the characters. Alex is exactly the kid who would leave for college early, not just because she’s excited to start class, but because she feels like she’s finally among people who speak her language and understand her passions. Instead, Alex ends up rooming with Maisie, a high-strung, gawky 15-year-old who comes cartwheeling in like a Mensan Sue Heck. Alex is floating on a cloud of smugness, going on and on about all the sophisticated college friends she’s about to make, and Haley can’t resist gloating over Maisie.

The sisters get a sweet moment at the end of the episode, with Haley telling Alex she’s about to jump into a scary new environment, and having someone who always only sees your best side is helpful, even if it’s a bit irritating at times. I’m pretty sure the idea that Alex was Haley’s “biggest cheerleader” invalidates a solid two-thirds of Alex’s dialogue since the show began, but the scene worked on an emotional level. The story couldn’t have worked without having the right actress in the part of Maisie, and Chloe Csengery absolutely kills it. Hopefully this is the first of many appearances.

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The Phil and Luke story feels even more familiar than the Haley and Alex story. There are many, many examples of Phil panicking about his relationship with the kids, how they see him, or how best to impart his legacy. This time he’s guilting Luke into coming with him to show the spaceship house that has pushed lesser realtors past the brink of madness. Luke’s heart isn’t in it because he’s rather be down at the pier throwing things at other things with his slacker bros. There are some funny visual gags inside the weird house, but it’s a wobbly story, despite how nice it was to see Phil’s rational response, which represents growth for the character. But the bit with the duck eggs at the end is really darling, and Claire gets another excuse to call and check on Alex.

The Pritchett-Delgados essentially share a plot with the Tucker-Pritchetts, with Cam and Mitch trying to rope the family into coming to Lily’s soccer game while they try to find excuses to get out of it. The story is reminscent of “Farm Strong,” in which Claire pressures Phil to skip Luke’s soccer game only to wind up going by herself to witness the best performance of his nascent soccer career. A lot of the story feels like filler, but Gloria’s sippy-cup sniper shot makes it all worth it. But what I don’t like? Talking Joe. I need that to stop happening. It isn’t funny and the dialogue audio is rough.

Stray observations:

  • I hope Luke hears the boy band idea so often that it finally sticks.
  • Cam and Mitch went full farce between the estate planning and the bed and breakfast.
  • That house must have been an awfully fun project for the location scout.
  • Chloe: “Help, there’s Norway out!”
  • Jay, upon finding Claire in his house without his knowledge: “How often do you break in here? Does that explain the white wine? We fired a cleaning lady.”
  • Cam, on his faithful attendance at the rest of the family’s kid events: “Like when we had to sit through that sanitized 5th grade version of Rent where they all got head colds.”

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