The A.V. Club has been reviewing Modern Family for, give or take a few episodes here or there, its entire run. While other shows have gone to the chopping block, the Emmy-hoarding ABC sitcom continues to stay strong, despite a pretty clear decline in quality. For me, this will be my third season reviewing the show every single Wednesday night. When I hopped on the coverage back in Season 7, I almost immediately regretted it. What was an aging but still rather funny and thoughtful show only a season before had suddenly gone off the deep end and hit rock bottom. Luckily, last season saw the show rebound, finding a lot of its heart again even if some of the plotting remained uninspiring.

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I mention this long, winding road of Modern Family reviews because as the show enters its ninth season, the premiere itself, “Lake Life,” feels like a commentary on the struggles that come with any aging piece of art. Sure, that theme is filtered through the surface story of Jay wanting to take his whole family out on a house boat to witness an eclipse that happens once every 99 years, and also Phil and Claire grappling with their own aging, but the meta commentary is certainly there. I’m not about claim that the writers set out to write an episode about aging TV shows—perhaps they did!—but as “Lake Life” unfurls, such a reading becomes more and more apparent.

“Lake Life” takes place just a few weeks after the events of last season’s finale. Manny is preparing for college by trying to reinvent himself as the “strong, silent type,” Alex and Ben are still together, and everybody has gathered on a rented house boat to watch the impending eclipse. As is bound to happen when the whole family gets together, it isn’t long before everyone’s going their separate ways, bringing chaos with them. Cam can’t spend much time in the sun because of his antibiotics and insists on wearing a caftan, huge hat, and presumably all the sunscreen he could find on the boat; Alex freaks out on Ben and leaves with Haley, Manny, and Luke to find a party on an island; Phil and Claire head out for a hike; and when Mitchell takes a trip into town, he runs into a local man who just so happens to be the first boy he ever kissed during a summer trip as a kid.

Unsurprisingly, considering that the above storylines only make up part of the season premiere, “Lake Life” ends up feeling pretty overstuffed. The episode hops quickly between scenes, so much so that it’s difficult to latch onto anything that’s happening. The intrigue of the mysterious party invite is solved before it has time to settle, and the outcome of Mitchell’s run-in with his former crush is evident early on. I mean, Cam and Gloria get as much screen time as anyone else, and their story is literally nothing; it’s just Cam falling in the lake and a running joke about Gloria being scared of the water because that’s where “her people dump drugs and bodies,” because even nine seasons in the show still leans on the reductive, stereotypical Colombian jokes.

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With that said, “Lake Life” balances out all the bad by engaging with the idea of aging, not just for the characters, but for the show itself. Two moments act as the catalyst for self-examination: First, Jay receives news that a colleague of his has died, and reads nothing but glowing remembrances of the man. Then, Claire and Phil realize that the pamphlet of activities they were given before stepping on the boat is not only different from the one the kids got, but it’s the same as the one Jay received. These two moments inspire Claire, Phil, and Jay to reflect on the fact that they’re getting older, and because these are members of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan, they react in the most exaggerated way possible.

For Claire and Phil, that means going cliff jumping rather than for a peaceful walk in the woods. It’s not exactly a transformative experience though, as Claire takes the leap time and again, only for Phil to chicken out. It’s a promising story to start, and with Luke getting older and Alex in her first serious adult-ish relationship, it makes sense that they’d be starting to feel a little older, pushing themselves to remain youthful. The episode, perhaps because of its overstuffed nature, doesn’t examine this feeling for much time though. Rather than coming to some sort of resolution and understanding that they’re okay with who they are, their story just kind of stops when the eclipse hits. Perhaps the future episodes will allow them to come back to their anxiety.

Jay’s overreaction to the effusive praise of his deceased colleague is to start doing nice things for everyone around him. He rubs sunscreen on Phil’s back and gives Alex a telescope, a years-late gesture meant to spark in her a love of science. You see, Jay isn’t just worried about dying, he’s worried about how he’ll be remembered. Phil and Claire wonder if they can still be the fun, adventurous couple they once were, and Jay wonders if he’s done enough good in his life to be remembered fondly once he’s gone.

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And really, isn’t Modern Family asking those same questions heading into its ninth season? Sure, it’s an Emmy powerhouse, but will the show be enshrined as one of the great network sitcoms? Can it still capture the inventive, sharp feeling of its early seasons—something that happened in many of last season’s episodes—or has it settled into the sitcom version of a light stroll through the woods while keeping an eye out for birds? If Modern Family can spend some time contemplating these questions, there’s a good chance that it can stave off the feeling of aging for awhile. After all, the best way to combat complacency and tedium is by constantly learning, adapting, and finding new ways to keep things fresh, which is a lesson in both life and sitcoms.

Stray observations

  • Mitchell is not pleased that he and Cam seemingly have the same sense of style as whoever decorated the houseboat: “We have these lamps at home. We have boat lamps.”
  • “You all act like you’ve never seen a caftan before.”
  • I’ll be curious to see how Ben and Alex’s relationship plays out in the early part of the season. When taken in conjunction with last year’s episodes, I’m mostly annoyed by the emotional twists and turns. It all feels too contrived. But the idea posited here, that Alex is acting out because things are getting too real, could be rewarding down the line.
  • “You want a lure?” “Apparently I don’t have allure.”
  • Sometimes my cynicism runs deep, but I admit that the closing family rendition of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” was sweet.

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