"It's gonna be tough to say goodbye. It always is. Nobody loves change. But... part of life is learning to let things go."

So says endearingly goofy Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), caught in a rare moment of sober reflection, in The Old Wagon, the first episode in the second season of Modern Family. I smiled wistfully, wondering if there was an element here of ABC reinforcing the message of the LOST finale, giving a little pat on the back to viewers aching just a bit as the fall season begins, knowing that no further adventures of Jack Shephard and his fellow survivors await. After all, they aired on the same network; Julie Bowen (Claire) played Jack's wife; and a two-part episode just before the Modern Family season finale had them sojourning in Hawaii, where LOST was shot.

Okay, maybe not. Still, this felt like a surprisingly melancholy return to what I am probably prepared to call the most consistently funny show on television right now. That's not to say that the series, which combines the traditional family sit-com with the confessional mockumentary style of The Office and splits the focus among three branches of the same family, did not deliver the laughs. My all-time favorite sit-com, M*A*S*H, is so powerful because it is nearly as likely to move viewers to tears as to laughter. I like a comedy that makes me feel something; pratfalls, zippy dialogue and sight gags are all well and good but won't truly hook me unless I care about the characters. Modern Family strikes a perfect balance.

What I would consider the main storyline involves the Dunphys' decision to sell their old station wagon. Claire wants it gone; they haven't driven it in years, and it's just taking up space they don't have in the garage. Phil hates to see it go, but when she coyly questions his ability to sell it, determination trumps nostalgia. Salesmanship, after all, is his line of business - though one wonders how a bumbler like him manages to pull it off. Then again, who could say no to that earnest face? As someone whose brain has a habit of making extremely random connections, I love his absurd mnemonic device, which makes the most convoluted of leaps to help him remember clients' names, a technique Michael Scott employed on The Office last season. Somehow, it seems to work for both of them.

While Phil tries to find a buyer, Claire and the kids have the task of cleaning out the car. As each recovered item sparks a long-forgotten memory, the girls roll their eyes while Luke just sort of wanders about in a daze as usual. He's not yet reached his sisters' level of sophistication, which brings with it the need to deride any object associated with the past. In spite of herself, Claire gets weepy, so that instead of being greeted with congratulations when he snags a buyer for the car, Phil instead finds himself trying to combat his wife's serious case of existential malaise. His solution is eloquent in its simplicity - though, of course, not without complications, since poor Phil's best intentions have an uncanny knack for going awry. Still, despite a few moments of hilariously extravagant disaster, this storyline is both somber and touching.

Manny Delgado (Rico Rodriguez), whose eccentricities and wise-beyond-his-years manner made him the immediate standout among the children on the show, is stirring up similar feelings of loss in his zesty mother, Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Several episodes have dealt with Manny's fervent adoration for one or another of his schoolmates, and in this case, there's more girl drama when he invites a friend over for a study date. Though he doesn't profess to be in love with this one, Gloria still feels she is competing for her son's affection, leading to a very funny miniature showdown with shades of Marie and Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond. Gloria doesn't want to be the kind of over-involved mother that she tells us is so commonly found in her home country of Colombia, but she can't seem to help it. The least involved of the storylines, this one strikes the best balance between humor and pathos.

Meanwhile, the storyline involving the normally effusive Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and uptight Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) swapping personalities as they undertake a construction project is almost pure comedy. One does feel a bit sorry for Mitchell, who is so excited to build a princess castle for his daughter but eventually learns that his gruff father Jay (Ed O'Neill) and Cameron are conspiring against him to keep him out of the toolbox. After all, it's not often that we see him so giddy about something; such over-the-top exuberance is usually reserved for Cameron. But it isn't long before the viewers come to understand exactly why Jay, in reference to having built a bookshelf with Mitchell years before, confesses to the audience, "That was my Vietnam. And I was in Vietnam."

Lily's castle, incidentally, is truly a thing of beauty, an elaborate pink paradise big enough to be roomy for adults. Of course, there's little chance that Lily, just a few months old, has any appreciation for it at all; they may have jumped the gun a little on this particular project. But their eagerness to provide Lily all available comforts is a hallmark of their relationship. Good parenting is at the heart of all of this week's storylines, with most of the adults struggling in some way with their parental roles and learning, in some sense, to let go. Let go of the objects that tie them to the past. Let go of the children they wish could be exclusively devoted to them forever. Let go of misplaced pride; let go of harmful timidity. But even as we let that message sink in, we in the audience heave a sigh of satisfaction that this is one group of characters that we will not have to let go for a long time.