For a long time the series fit neatly into the category of comfortably mediocre comedy, which explained both why it's become a comfortable habit, and that mildly unsettled feeling we seem to have after viewing it: pull-back-and-reveals that land just slightly off-mark, canned awkwardness taken directly from "confessional"-type sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation, and occasional parent-child humor that reads less caustic than mean.
Last week's episode "Game-Changer" brought what we'd been feeling, either subconsciously or explicitly, violently out in the open. In a b-plot, Sofia Vergara's Gloria is revealed to be an excellent chess player. semi-crotchety Ed O'Neil, Gloria's husband, talks her out of finishing their game, which he admits to knowing she was going to win. To camera, Gloria explains that although she was two moves away from check-mate, she is a "very good chess player, but a better wife."
On its own, this moment is at best a sappy quip about compromise in an often heavy-handed series, and at worst, it's a moment in a show with 9.3 million viewers, on a network owned by Disney, which explicitly validates girls and women subduing their intellect (what less subtle way to communicate a character being brainy in film and television than a chess sequence?). It should be noted that this parallel plot line could have easily been overlooked due to some of the most heavy-handed product placement ever seen in the history of all television, ever.
Early in the first season, episode "Run For Your Wife" contained an astonishingly similar plot, in which Phil challenges Claire to a race in their neighborhood. Claire is an accomplished runner. Phil is coping with the kids starting their school year. Or something.
And of course, the writers do, on occasion, deviate from the "let him win to avoid conflict" message to girls are bad-at technology humor."
On paper, this show has a tremendous amount to offer. They've got gay main characters who are authentic, sympathetic, universally loved among viewers, and who only very occasionally delve into worn stereotypes. Intercultural marriage. A fast-talking brainy pre-teen who could theoretically be the Daria of this generation. And the cast are clearly accomplished, and work in excellent balance (maybe some of us even have a weird crush on Ty Burrell's perpetual goof husband/father).
But more and more it seems like these "progressive" aspects of the show are qualifiers to regressive, gender-bizarre messages; they are the Black friend to your tipsy uncle, Jules Kirby's Jewish step-father. And if episodes like these continue, the best elements of the show will be reduced to excuses for the shitty parts to exist.