Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter

Modern Family is perceived, mostly fairly, as a show that hit its stride early on and never tried to pick up the pace at any point in its history. The unfortunate part of this narrative is that it obscures episodes that don’t fit into it, like “The Day We Almost Died.” At least once a season, Modern Family tries something clever and outlandish and absolutely nails it. Last season, it was the delirious farce of “Las Vegas,” and in season six, it looks like “The Day We Almost Died” is the overachiever.

Opinions will vary about whether or not “The Day We Almost Died” is among Modern Family’s funniest episodes, but there’s no arguing that its the most ambitious episodes of season six, and among maybe the five most interesting episodes in the show’s history. It sounds goofy on paper. The Dunphys are driving from the pancake house with Phil at the wheel and Manny along for the ride. Phil nearly collides with a truck and swerves to miss it, leaving everyone rattled but unharmed. The brush with death radiates outward as the passengers come to grips with the knowledge, or at least the thought, there were mere seconds separating an outcome in which they lived and one in which they didn’t.

That fateful moment is the core of “The Day,” and director James Bagdonas certainly treats it as such, with no shortage of camera angles or vantage points from which to show the near-crash. The sequence had to be a nightmare to shoot and perform given the nuances. Upon subsequent viewings, it has to consistently look like Haley was grabbing Alex when she was actually trying to save her phone. Sarah Hyland gets MVP of the night for however many times she had to hurl herself against Ariel Winter.

In addition to the atypically nifty visuals, Danny Zuker’s script had arguably the most unusual structure of any episode this show has done. Cam doesn’t appear at all until nearly three-quarters of the way through the episode. That’s never happened before. Then again, this was an episode full of firsts, with Cam becoming hot and bothered by an emboldened Phil. Eric Stonestreet is so great when Cam gets something interesting to do, and he absolutely nailed Cam’s reluctant flirtation with Phil. Putting Stonestreet and Ty Burrell together isn’t even fair to the rest of the cast.

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The entire cast delivers, even though the individual threads vary in quality. Claire and Mitchell’s underpass skating isn’t the most promising opening, even though the atypical use of talking heads is intriguing enough to warrant further investigation. Things pick up when we check in with Luke, who hasn’t been kept terribly busy this season. Luke is so shaken by the almost accident, mostly because he didn’t notice it, he wants to seize every moment: “When a man misses his own near miss? He truly sees what he’s missing.”

Luke can be a tricky character to write for, which has been the case since he was a kid. Depending on who’s writing the episode, he can be a guileless galoot or a sociopath in training, and Zuker seems to understand Luke pretty well. The Mentos jetpack is something he would try out.

The usually underwhelming Pritchett-Delgados even had something fun to do, with Manny so affected by the narrow escape, he becomes terrified of driving, or even riding in a car. Only when Gloria (who, by the way, doesn’t appear until the halfway point) tricks him into avenging the theft of her cell phone does Manny slam on the gas, convincing Jay that he, too, was moments away from death. (As the roller skater in their path, Mitch gets his own close call.)

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There’s a case for giving the episode an A-, with at least one argument that Modern Family never needs to do another story in which Alex is shocked to learn Haley really loves her, despite being shocked to learn that so many times before. “The Day” also features Gil Thorpe, who is always hard to stomach, even when Phil is reading him the riot act. But Modern Family so infrequently pulls off episodes like this, it feels ungrateful to qualify the praise.

Stray observations:

  • It’s good this was the winter premiere, because watching this one week after “Haley’s 21st Birthday” would have been so weird.
  • Claire to Mitchell: “We used to call everything gay. Do you ever miss that?”
  • Manny: “The universe is cold and unfeeling. The only constant is chaos.” Jay: “Was that place out of chocolate chip pancakes again?”
  • Jay is so livid about Phil and that blasted new-wave music.
  • Cam’s breathless reaction to Sexy Phil was amazing.

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