I love Phil Dunphy. The good-natured dad in the most traditional branch of the sprawling family in ABC's Modern Family is so cheerful and goofy, somebody who strives to be hip while having very little idea of just how uncool he actually is. Of all the characters in the Strangers On a Treadmill, the fourth episode in Modern Family's second season, I was most drawn to him and his enthusiastic preparations for his hosting gig at a dinner for real estate agents. Throughout the episode, he lets loose with all sorts of lame jokes involving his various peers, and it's rather painful to imagine the reception that he will get when he stands up there in front of everyone and tries them all out.

Phil is a problem for Claire, since she wants to be supportive of her husband and doesn't want to crush his dreams but also doesn't want him to go out in front of all of his fellow realtors and make a colossal fool of himself. She just can't bring herself to tell him that his jokes aren't funny. Meanwhile, Mitchell has a similar problem. He is glad that Cameron has begun working out regularly and becoming healthier, but he doesn't like the side effect: that he is bent on wearing extremely unflattering bicycle shorts. Mitchell finds himself embarrassed whenever he sees Cameron wearing these dinky shorts, but he knows how sensitive Cameron is and hates to hurt his feelings.

When Mitchell and Claire meet up and compare notes, they hit upon an idea that's rather brilliant in its simplicity, inspired by one of Mitchell's favorite movies, Strangers On a Train, to which the episode's title is a reference. Like Claire, I'd never heard of this Alfred Hitchcock movie, but this episode piqued my interest. Naturally, the circumstances in the episode are a little tamer; instead of plotting murders, Mitchell and Claire merely conspire to do each other's dirty work in terms of confronting their loved ones about their ill-advised behavior. Mitchell will tell Phil that he doesn't have the makings of a stand-up comedian, while Claire will inform Cameron that he needs to consider different fashion choices. Sounds simple, but of course, not everything goes exactly according to plan.

In this episode, Luke laughs hysterically at everything that Phil says, and I can't figure out if it's because he's just trying to be supportive or if he really thinks his dad is that funny. Pretty much his only role in the episode is to chortle like a sycophant at Phil's every wisecrack. Meanwhile, Haley and Alex have their own little drama unfolding quite apart from the rest of the activity in the family. A couple of episodes ago, Alex was busy getting acquainted with the wonderful world of boys, and in Strangers On a Treadmill, she suddenly decides that she's interested in being cool. She hooks up with one of the most popular girls in her class and is teetering on the edge of being in the In Crowd. Haley, in an atypical show of support that may be partially motivated by the increased cred that could come with having a sister who isn't such a geek, decides to help her seal the deal. She insists that Alex needs to play it cool, not calling her repeatedly and not even answering her phone calls very often. Alex needs to act as though she is too good for all this, and maybe she'll manage to convince the cool crowd that this is actually the case.

I never cared much about popularity when I was in school; I was a happy little loner, and it seems I missed out on a lot of drama. It's a complicated dance that Alex and Haley choreograph together, but they seem to have mastered all the steps. And then Alex stumbles, and her fleeting dreams of popularity come crashing down around her in the midst of an absolute train wreck of a phone call. I feel sorry for her, but I also can't help thinking that she's better off without a "friend" who requires such phony behavior. She needs somebody she can be herself with, and though she woefully tells Claire that she has no friends, she appeared to have a kindred spirit in the boy who offered to kiss her in the second episode. I think she'll be all right.

While the storylines between Claire and Mitchell's clans are tightly entwined, Jay is set apart from the rest as Gloria twists his arm into attending a Quinceanera for the daughter of one of his employees. Jay scoffs at her contention that he feels superior to all of the people who work for him, but once they get to the party, it would appear that she had a point, since Jay doesn't recognize anyone in the room. He pays off the socially skilled Manny to scope out the crowd and fill him in on who everybody is, and he does a pretty good job of faking familiarity with all of these people. But what he doesn't realize and Gloria eventually does is that they've come to the wrong party, so while he tries to impress her with his knowledge of all his employees and their families, she soon becomes aware that he's bluffing, and their presence at the party, which is actually for a couple getting married, ends in calamity when Jay is scandalized by what he thinks is a father-daughter dance.

Neither Claire nor Mitchell is entirely successful in carrying out the appointed task, though Claire gets much closer to it than Mitchell, who chickens out entirely. When he tries to soothe Cameron's wounded pride after Claire makes her gentle criticism of his shorts, he accidentally reveals how much he hates them himself, which leads to a heart-to-heart about Cameron's self-image. Meanwhile, Claire tries to find another way of dealing with Phil, but when all is said and done, he goes ahead with the routine anyway, and it turns out that the jokes that are so stupid to her are actually hilarious to Phil's friends in the biz. It just goes to show how important it is to consider one's audience. It's nice to see Phil score a victory, since he's so often messing up, and to accept Claire's admission of her doubts with good grace. Of course, this could lead to an even heavier barrage of bad jokes in the future, since he has now received the validation of a room full of applause, but when such a great guy is talking, surely it's worth it to put up with a few corny remarks.