They feel the earth move under their feet... An earthquake is the unifying theme in Earthquake, the third episode of Modern Family's second season. The event itself is over very quickly, with little damage to anyone involved. But in each branch of the Pritchett family, the arrival of the earthquake sparks a crisis - or perhaps more accurately, causes an already existing crisis to further unfold.

In the Dunphy household, aggression is in the air as Haley tries to convince her mom that it's more important for her to go to a party than to study for the SATs. Once she drags Alex into the argument, it becomes an all-out catfight, so Claire is already in a lousy mood when she calls a plumber, while Phil is disgusted that she didn't trust him to fix the problem. The trouble of it is that Phil isn't much of a handyman, as evidenced by the debacle of the falling cabinet that occurs when the earthquake hits the house. Luke narrowly misses getting pulverized, and Phil is so embarrassed that instead of focusing on rescuing Claire, who is locked in the bathroom with the plumber, he decides to spend the morning securing the cabinet properly so that she won't have to know that he never actually did it when she asked him to.

There's a lot happening in the Dunphy house in this episode. We get Haley, who is her usual bratty self, sassing her mom and belittling her sister. Before she makes her grand departure, she engages in a shouting match with Claire that manages to effectively demonstrate her abysmal lack of math skills. There's Alex, who's a bit of an insufferable know-it-all with a penchant for tattling but who is willing to keep a secret for the price of a trip to the Museum of Tolerance. She also delivers the delightfully Hermione Granger-ish line, "You're never alone when you have books." And then Luke is simply traumatized by his close brush with a potentially fatal injury.

Meanwhile, Phil has his priorities a little wrong, and a chat with the bemused plumber helps Claire to understand that she may be a big part of the problem when it comes to her continuing feud with Haley. Lots of funny stuff happening in this storyline, and I especially love dopey Luke's attempt to help explain to Claire why Phil failed to get her out of the bathroom: he was comforting Luke due to the fact that "I got scared because the cabinet didn't fall down."

Over at Mitchell and Cameron's, the earthquake arrives in the midst of their preparations to go to a brunch hosted by their friend Pepper. Neither of them wants to go, even though this seems right up Cameron's alley and he looks quite dashing in his Oscar Wilde-inspired get-up. The earthquake seems to offer the perfect opportunity for an excuse to back out of yet another of Pepper's lavish brunches, but when Cameron tries to concoct a lie about extensive damages to the house, he makes matters worse by claiming Mitchell sustained a serious injury, prompting Pepper to come over himself and help.

Pepper - whose last name, it transpires, is Saltsman - is played by Nathan Lane at his most over-dramatic. Evidently his demeanor is a bit much for most of his friends, as everyone cancelled on him. Lane's performance is amusing; it takes some skill to come across as more over-the-top than Cameron without looking completely ridiculous. I also found myself feeling sorry for him, since he has this idea that he is the pinnacle of high society, yet everyone dreads attending his functions. It was interesting to finally meet this long-mentioned character, and I would say that he lived up to expectations. My guess is that we'll be seeing more of him.

The storyline in the episode that captured my attention the most was the one involving Jay, Gloria and Manny. Theirs was the first household in which we saw the earthquake, coming immediately after Jay's breezy announcement that he intends to go golfing instead of attending church. Gloria takes the earthquake as a sign that God is angry with her husband, but Jay is far from convinced, and his decision to still blow off the service inspires Manny, who likes the idea of finding God in nature rather than a stuffy building.

While Gloria heads off to church fuming, Jay and Manny make for the golf course. Jay thinks he's in for a relaxing day of golf, but Manny has always been a thinker, and this incident has provoked some deep questions. With each of Manny's queries, Jay gets more and more irritated, and his facile answers become less and less satisfying. "You're playing fast and loose with my soul!" Manny protests when he realizes that Jay is just making things up as he goes along.

I found it interesting that this intense discussion on the nature of the afterlife came just a day after GLEE's Grilled Cheesus, which focuses so intently upon religious beliefs and the lack thereof. I'm sure the two shows didn't coordinate, but there seemed to be a deep thematic connection there. The intuitive Manny is one of my favorite characters on Modern Family, and I liked the way he grilled Jay here, insisting upon a serious theological discussion when all Jay wanted to do was whack a few golf balls across the green. I also found Manny's aversion to butterflies pretty funny, particularly when Gloria accidentally brings it up again at the end of the episode, along with the trauma he experienced when he wound up in a girls' health class on an especially inconvenient day.

As always seems to be the case with Modern Family, I laughed out loud on more than one occasion during Earthquake. Lots of great zingers, and I thought the running joke involving Cameron's ceramic frog was especially funny. Meanwhile, I was happy to see Manny returning to church with Gloria to puzzle through these sticky issues for himself, though it would have been nice if Jay would have agreed to go with him. Maybe some other time...