Modern Family goes through a good amount of churn in its writers’ room from year to year, but it has retained a good chunk of the talent involved in its charmed early run. Among the first-gen Modern Family writers are Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh, who didn’t pen the most memorable episodes in early seasons (save for the season one classic “Fizbo,”) but have been on quite a tear these past couple of years. More often than not, when a Modern Family episode seems surprisingly well-oiled these days, Corrigan and Walsh will be credited (often alongside fellow veteran Bill Wrubel.)

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“Won’t You Be Our Neighbor” continues the streak of energized episodes written by the elite team that is to Modern Family as the retention team is to the average cable provider. They’re the consummate pros who convince you to stay even when you’re so tempted to bail. The biggest slumps in season six have come in episodes that keep the families separated, and yet “Neighbor” is solid throughout despite the lack of family overlap, persuasive evidence of assured hands at the wheel.

Granted, there’s a simple explanation for this: “Neighbor” is overstuffed with guest stars. The reason the episodes with the most cast integration tend to work so well is because the characters get to bounce off those they don’t normally interact with, raising the odds of an unexplored angle in a central relationship. Guest stars inject the same freshness, and while it would be nice if Modern Family could infuse the same vitality into episodes featuring only its core actors, there’s no point quibbling if the result is as much fun as “Neighbor.”

There’s more to it than the guests though, and much of the credit belongs to the script, as well as Gail Mancuso’s nimble direction. That lopsided feeling Modern Family episodes often have—usually because the Dunphys are outperforming their relatives—is missing from “Neighbor,” which finds solid stories for all three families, and balances them evenly rather than abbreviating one plot until it feels like an afterthought.

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In a significant change of pace, the Pritchett-Delgados end up with the best material this week, in large part because it plummets headlong into Jay’s world, the brutal closet industry, which is run by cold men as dark and closed-off as the closets they sell. One of my gripes with “ClosetCon ‘13” was that it could have gone bigger with the absurd minutia of the custom closet game, but “Neighbor” makes up for it. Manny brings home Sophie, his future wife du jour, just as Jay is perfecting the Sock It To Me, the sock dispenser that will catapult him ahead of the evil empire known as Closets Closets Closets Closets. Jay is horrified to learn Sophie’s the granddaughter of his nemesis, CCCC czar Earl Chambers, though honestly he should have suspected something, as everyone knows Sophie is the most popular name among female spies.

The Dunphys are on fire too, though poor Jerry isn’t having the best time, forced to move out of the house next door in what is perhaps the saddest callback in history of sitcoms. The house is listed with Phil, who teams up with Claire to steer the house toward their preferred family, a young couple who look like they escaped from a photo frame insert, and away from a rowdy, unrefined couple and their hellraising kids.

The story didn’t work quite as well as it could have, despite game performances from Steve Zahn and Andrea Anders, because the “Look at the poor white trash” jokes here feel just as off-putting as the “Foreigners don’t talk no good” jokes in “Marco Polo.” But Phil and Claire manage to deliver the biggest laugh of the night. Modern Family, which does a lot of Three’s Company-style sexual innuendo, has perhaps never done it better, with Phil and Claire unwittingly inviting their prospective neighbors on a trip to Swingtown.

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The Tucker-Pritchetts’ plot is more understated than usual, and while wasn’t quite as funny as the rest of the episode, it was certainly charming. It was reminiscent of the botched family portrait in “Do Not Push,” the kind of cute parenting story Modern Family doesn’t get to tell as often anymore with its other young cast members sprouting like beanstalks. Mitch and Cam conspire to relieve Lily’s stress by yanking her away from the demanding Mrs. Plank (Tyne Daly, wearing the eye of the tiger) and putting her into the anarchist pleasure den better known as Miss Sparrow’s class. Lily is great here, as is her friend, whose inability to combine single-digit numerals shows Miss Sparrow’s shortcomings.

I’m going to henceforth refer to Corrigan, Walsh and Wrubel as The Retention Team, but maybe the writers’ room needs an internal retention team. New voices in the mix can be a great thing, but with Modern Family, experience is the best teacher.

Stray observations:

  • Obviously this photo isn’t from tonight’s episode; ABC wouldn’t make with the promo photography. Besides, ‘member when Mitch and Cam got engaged? So cute!
  • So as not to rewrite history, I should mention this is the same writing team responsible for “Sleeper.” But man, that thing is so off-pitch and awful, I’ve written it off as an outlier, not just for the writers, but for the show.
  • We’ll see if Corrigan and Walsh can continue the streak. They’re back for next week’s Halloween episode, this time with old pro Abraham Higginbotham.
  • Sorry Jay, but Sock-and-Roll really is a much better name.
  • Alex’s fixation on Ronnie’s “Hot stuff” comment was pretty hilarious.
  • But what is not hilarious, and is becoming quite creepy, is the vaguely incestuous streak between Haley and Luke. Please, please stop that.
  • Zahn and Anders will be sticking around as recurring guests, so hopefully Ronnie and Kim will get some depth rather than continuing as trailer park caricatures.
  • I was really hoping the tag would be Phil and Luke finally fulfilling their goal of giving a chicken the best day of its life, but Mrs. Plank’s smackdown was just fine.

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