A running theme in my reviews of the seventh season of Modern Family has been frustration at the fact that the show came out of last season with a change in dynamics but has failed to capitalize on the opportunity that change brought about. Many of the characters were being forced into different situations and, ideally, it would allow the show to tackle some fresh storylines. One of the more promising shifts was Alex heading off to college. She’d always been smart and independent, but her character was ripe for a “I miss home” storyline. Rather than explore her new location, and the challenges that comes with that, Modern Family decided to largely ignore her, pretending, for the most part, that nothing had really changed.
“Spread Your Wings” finally takes the time to really explore what Alex might be feeling while away from home for the first time. She’s wrapping up her first semester, and Phil is beyond excited. He’s been invited to come spend some time with her and he’s thrilled because, as he says, she’s been pulling away from him ever since she left. It’s a solid setup for what ends up being an emotional storyline, and one that dovetails with a subplot involving Claire, Haley, and Luke attempting to get rid of the ducks that Phil has stubbornly kept around for much longer than he should have.
Before diving into that mess though, let’s start with the more underwhelming, but still strong subplots. All season long Modern Family has struggled to make any story revolving around Jay, Gloria, and Manny interesting. Perhaps it’s because they’re the least interesting group in the big family. More likely though is that so many of their weekly plots involve the same beats and stick to the same formula. It’s refreshing then to see them split up this week, with Jay lending a hand to Mitchell, who’s throwing a sleepover party for Lily’s Vietnamese dance group, and Gloria and Manny teaming up with Cam to get an order of sauce ready for the granddaddy of all holiday gift baskets, Grandaddy’s Holiday Gift Baskets. The plot, which sees Manny plan a heist in order to steal some peppers for Gloria’s sauce, works for the most part because it doesn’t get into the same stale territory that’s defined most of this season. Specifically, Cam and Gloria make a good comedic team; it’s in the way Sofia Vergara and Eric Stonestreet can play both manic and chilly.
An episode like “Spread Your Wings,” which includes the more emotional A-plot with Phil and Alex, needs those kind of low-key comedy subplots to balance everything out. Jay trying to help Mitchell, who’s clearly in over his head with his planned sleepover, serves the same purpose. It provides a much-needed change in character pairings, resulting in a subplot essentially about the tension between generations. See, Mitchell seems to think that he has it in him to provide Lily’s Vietnamese dance group with a special, unforgettable sleepover. Jay, on the other hand, tells him that the real goal of a sleepover is to tire the kids out and have them in bed by 7:30. What follows is predictable, with Mitchell toughing it out for awhile until he desperately asks Jay for help in exhausting the kids, but there’s a simple charm to it that makes it stand out from the more rote subplots peppered throughout the season. Plus, there’s the image of Mitchell sleeping on the couch at 7:45—there’s room for improvement—and Jay putting a blanket over him and rubbing his head before he leaves, which is the type of sentimental moment thatModern Family can get away with when it puts in the character work. It’s the same reason a throwaway plot like Claire, Haley, and Luke getting rid of the ducks works; it makes sense that Phil wouldn’t want to let go of the three ducks while his three kids continues to grow apart from him.
Really, it’s the character work that drives the episode’s best storyline, where Phil goes to visit Alex at college one week before her first semester wraps up. It’s a storyline filled with great Phil Dunphy moments—”Meanwhile, the ducks are awesome and nobody gets it”—from the funny to the sentimental. That would all be for naught though if it wasn’t for the deeper feelings being explored. When Alex tells her dad that she wants to live at home next semester, and then lashes out at him when he suggests that maybe she stick it out for a while longer, it’s not an out-of-character moment just for the sake of creating conflict. It’s a character moment rooted in Alex’s personality. She’s long been self-sufficient, but at home she had built-in social support. Away at college, she’s still the smart, self-motivated young woman she was at home, but she no longer has that social support. She feels left out, and as much as she acts like she’s above the “partying” ways of her classmates, who don’t even seem to party that hard, she really just wants to be a part of it all.
Nobody understands that feeling better than Phil. He’s spent his life trying to fit in. Even when he got married and had kids, which should be a fulfilling experience, he still had to prove himself to Jay. He’s always had to try and break out of his shell to fit in. That doesn’t mean changing who you are, but just putting yourself out there and giving people a chance to let you in. It’s that father-daughter understanding that makes the final moment of their storyline so moving. Phil comes back to the dorm and acknowledges that his story, of not fitting in and then coming into his own, is different from hers. So he tells her that she can move back in with them if she’s sure that she gave it her all; he believes her. Then, as he leaves and tells her he’ll be back next week to pick her up, he hands her a gift bag that’s meant to contain the noise-cancelling headphones she asked for. Instead, the bag contains a cheesy prom dress and goggles, the two things she needs to attend the night’s Freshman Cannonball, a yearly tradition that sees freshman celebrate their first completed semester by dressing up in cheesy prom gear and jumping into a swimming pool. It’s a beautiful moment, followed by Phil getting a late-night call from Alex just to chat, and it’s one that’s completely earned.