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'Modern Family' recap: Gone fishin'

May 26, 2011 |  9:01 am

123651_0193_preThe ensemble cast of "Modern Family" is so uniformly strong that sometimes you forget just how great some of the less flashy performers are.

Sofia Vergara and Eric Stonestreet are wonderful in broad, showier ways, but in his stoic way Ed O'Neill is every bit as entertaining as his castmates. Jay Pritchett -- successful, happily married, with children who adore him -- is almost the opposite of sad-sack Al Bundy, but there's an essential similarity between their characters, an extremely masculine breed of world-weariness: Both Al and Jay long for a little down time doing quintessentially manly things, but they never seem to find it.

In Wednesday's season finale it's Jay's birthday. All he wants is a to spend the day fishing, alone, but a series of family mishaps prevents Jay from realizing his dream. First, he accidentally takes Gloria's cellphone (yet another clever use of technology on the series) and has to pick up Stella from the dog groomer. Then, after Cameron gets kicked out of the bakery, he's dispatched to pick up his own birthday cake, even though he'd be happy with a grocery store confection. Finally, he has to rescue his grown children, Claire and Mitchell, from the backyard of their childhood home, where they've been trapped by a ferocious guard dog.

Jay is irritated, but, as usual, his crankiness quickly gives way to affection. He might not get to spend the day along fishing, but he's got a large extended family who go to extraordinary lengths to show their love for him. Cue the "awwwwwwwws." 

There's a theme of resignation -- or maybe it's just plain-old acceptance -- running through this episode, "The One That Got Away." At the mall, Phil encounters Glenn (played by the always amusing Rob Huebel) a frenemy from his college cheering days who's got an uncanny ability to make him feel insecure. Phil also bumps into Gloria, and decides to pretend that she's his wife -- thinking that Glenn will be jealous that he's scored such a bombshell. It'll be just like the time he got to park an Aston Martin in college; or so he thinks.

Phil's attraction to Gloria has been something of a running gag on "Modern Family." It's not that anything would ever happen between these two, but, understandably, he finds her attractive. He's also intimidated by her va-va-voom looks, reduced to a bumbling little boy in her presence. The implication is that she's a bit too much woman for him. You also get the sense that he's so acutely aware of Gloria because he's just so devoted to his wife; Phil doesn't want anything he does to be mistaken as flirting.

The stunt at the mall is a culmination of the quasi-sexual, mostly one-sided tension between these two characters and, naturally, it backfires. Glenn expresses his surprise that Phil didn't marry Claire Pritchett, with her blond hair and beautiful brown eyes. It's a double loss for Phil: Not only has he missed the oppurtunity to really make Glenn jealous, he's also betrayed his wife. It takes en encounter with a callow jerk for Phil to remember that he's done pretty well for himself, and, suddenly beset by guilt, he showers Claire with compliments.

Likewise, Cameron starts out the episode in a state of exasperation with parenthood but by the end of the half-hour he's ready to do it all over again. Lily is being unusually fussy and, at his wit's end, Cameron unloads her on Gloria for the day using the most effective weapon of all -- flattery. "Just this morning she was loking at a picture of you and I swear she was trying to say your name," he fibs. The gambit works, and soon enough Gloria's off to the mall with Lily. 

But, try as he might, Cameron can't avoid being parental. He counsels Manny on romantic matters and even plays the proverbial game of catch with him. The experience makes him realize he could, despite his avid interest in musical theater, raise a boy. So when Mitchell expresses his desire to become a parent again, Cameron's in agreement -- but he wants a boy this time around. Parenthood is trying, exhausting and occasionally intolerable, but Cameron wouldn't have it any other way.

It's all very warm-and-fuzzy, but, as is often the case on "Modern Family," there's a dose of honesty to help temper the sentimentality. Stranded in their childhood backyard, swilling a bottle of Merlot, Claire and Mitchell open up about about their father's new family. Mitchell asks Claire whether she thinks Manny will "get a third" -- meaning a third of Jay's fortune. Claire seems to think it's fair, but Mitchell is more resentful. Claire and Mitchell's story line is more about regression than it is acceptance; they're even dressed in their childhood clothes.

"Modern Family" has never been a plot-driven show, so it's appropriate that the finale doesn't leave us hanging on a narrative cliff, so much as it wraps a neat, sentmental bow on the season. We saw this in last year's finale, "Family Portrait"  This episode even includes some season highlights, incorporated into the storyline as home video footage from the past year at the Dunphy household. It was a subtle, ever-so-slightly self-referential way to acknowledge the end of the season.

When a show is as commercially and critically successful as "Modern Family," it's inevitable that people will start looking for signs of weakness. In its sophomore season, "Modern Family" offered up a few dud episodes, but this, I think, has more to do with the demands of the network television schedule than with any inherent weakness in the show itself, which remains as heartfelt, clever, and funny as ever.

 Lines of the night:

"Why 'no offense'? It's a sausage, it's not on our flag." --Gloria

"I have a tennis racket upstairs I only use as a bubble-bath frother." --Manny

"Where'd you get a sailor suit on short notice?" --Claire

"Ew. It's Merlot." --Mitchell

"You know who did your job in my day? A hose." --Jay

"You are the prettiest, smartest, funniest girl in the sixth grade. I know you're only 11, but I can't stop thinking about you. I've loved talking to you online. I think we should become boyfriend and girlfriend." --Cameron

"She can be mean in Spanish." --Cameron

"Baby Jesus, another baby Jesus, keys, more baby Jesus! Stella! Don't do that." --Gloria


Complete coverage of 'Modern Family' on Show Tracker

'Modern Family' recap: 'Everybody's got their stuff'

'Modern Family' recap: Trading places

'Modern Family' recap: Recipe for the perfect mom

'Modern Family' recap: 'The adults are the big ones, right?'

-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) re-create an old family photo. Credit: Colleen Hayes / ABC