by B. Szymczyk
I don’t think Modern Family is a bad television show. I’d go so far as to say it’s a pretty darn good one. The ABC sitcom, now in the middle of its third season, is at times hysterically funny and poignant. It’s also, by almost any measure of rating, phenomenally successful. For those who haven’t been exposed to it, Modern Family is a, well, family sitcom, but, as the title might indicate, it portrays a trio of very different familial structures: a standard husband, wife, three kids; a gay couple and their adopted Vietnamese daughter; a multi-ethnic, May-December remarriage, with a stepson rolled in. But, here’s the kicker: they’re all related. All three parts of the family live in the same area in Los Angeles, and they play active roles in each other’s lives. It’s a large ensemble cast, especially for a half-hour program, but the show deftly manages to overlap stories involving each of the branches.
Is it funny? Yes. It’s an unusually strong ensemble, considering its size. In particular Ty Burrell, playing Phil, manages to blend paternal warmth and confidence with insecurity, layered with a brilliant sense of timing and better-than-average physical comedy. He’s the complete package – what baseball scouts call the five-tool player. While the rest of the cast is very talented, of particular notice are child actors. Many family sitcoms use the kids to drive plots forward and deliver the occasional adorable punchline. (Think the Olsens on Full House or any of the Cosby Kids.) But on Modern Family, they’re not only gifted comic actors, they also manage to avoid the “aw shucks” cutesiness mixed with cold professionalism that has plagued sitcom kids since, well, forever. Their characters are believable, and the problems they face, realistic.
Another thing that interests me about Modern Family is that I hate it. Do I hate it as much as I hate CBS’s mean-spirited, loathsome Two and a Half Men? No. Do I hate it as much as I hate NBC’s lowest common denominator, look-how-different-men-and-women-are Whitney? No. But I do hate Modern Family. Not because the show is terrible – it’s not – but because it’s lazy, conservative, and frankly delivers the opposite of its title. It is neither a modern sitcom, nor does it depict modern families.
Modern Family is a mockumentary-like show, a style most directly derived from Ricky Gervais’ The Office, which mixed sit-down interview footage of its characters with cinema-verité style action footage to portray a fictional documentary about a paper merchant’s office. Modern Family, like many of its American mockumentary peers, though to perhaps a larger degree , divorces itself from the documentary. There’s never any reason given why a camera crew would be following these families around, certainly not for the length and depth to which they do. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Parks and Recreation – one of the funniest shows on TV – has similarly avoided investigating the documentary aspects behind the manner in which it’s filmed. But there’s a major issue with the way Modern Family manipulates its format.
In fact, it’s a different half-hour comedy that gets at the heart of the problem – an episode of Community mocking the modern mockumentary sitcom. While Community is normally a standard single-camera sitcom, the entire episode is footage “shot” by one of its characters, who, in a standard Community meta-joke, expresses the advantages of the format by saying, “It’s easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera.” This is a problem endemic to Modern Family, which, far more than its mockumentary peers, relies on juxtaposition between interview and action to move its plot and tell its jokes. This is problematic because family comedy humor is born out of interpersonal tension and resolution. When the conservative Archie Bunker is introduced to one of his liberal son-in-law Mike’s flamboyantly dressed and mannered friends, we know immediately what kind of tension will be created.
Great comedy writing creates characters rich enough that the audience understands and believes their actual reactions – in standard writing-workshop parlance, they “show instead of tell.” Even if Modern Family had characters full enough to fulfill those demands, the writers regularly don’t trust their audience or their writing enough to allow their characters to create the tension themselves. Instead, they use the talking head interviews to tell us how characters really feel, which allows for premade conflict. No assembly required. An example: A recent episode (Season 3, Episode 3) starts its second scene with its gay couple, Mitchell and Cam, standing in their kitchen. Cam, the overweight and overly-dramatic half of the couple is measuring out powders and announces he’s going on a “juice fast.” Mitchell quickly responds, “Love it!” We then slam cut to Mitchell in a talking head interview, “Hate it. Let’s face it a well-fed Cam is hardly a model of emotional stability, but deprive him of food… and it’s a descent into madness,” from which we follow Mitchell trying to keep Cam happy as the diet gets worse and worse. The writers could have simply allowed the talented actors to play Mitchell’s non-verbal reactions against Cam’s actions, but instead they leaned on the crutch of the interview.
The other major beef I have with Modern Family is that the show, for all its trappings of progressive portrayal of “Modern” families, is reactionary and conservative. The show stands in a long tradition of family-oriented comedies from radio’s The Goldbergs, to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to The Brady Bunch. While 1970s quirky family sitcoms were relatively scarce, the hay-day of the genre was in the 80s, which aired shows like Full House, Family Ties, Growing Pains, et al. Many portrayed non-traditional families –The Brady Bunch’s blended, Full House’s motherless, “it takes a village” style – but used them as novel means to a familiar end, the same sort of jokes that get told again and again. In the 90s, The Simpsons, along with Rosanne and Married… with Children skewered that phenomenon, portraying truly dysfunctional families with serious problems that, even if they were resolved by episode’s end, actually threatened those families’ stability.
Modern Family ignores the developments of the 90s on every front. Instead of using its non-traditional families to tell original stories, the show is content to center its plots on standard family squabbles and misunderstandings: running into an ex, guests overstaying their welcome, one spouse wearing an embarrassing outfit to the other’s chagrin, and so forth. And, as noted by Susan McWilliams, for all the nods to modernity of the family structures, the family at the center of this show is deeply traditional. All three families are very well off, have at least one stay-at-home parent, live close together, never worry about finances, the economy, or any of the pressures that so many contemporary American families face. It feels like a show that thinks diversity is enough to qualify as progressive. For a show that seems to want to stand in the lineage of Norman Lear’s politicized family comedies, it’s more Brady Bunch than All In The Family. It’s more problematic because the Modern Family’s mockumentary format provides an illusion of realism even as the show’s portrayal of families create unrealistic and unfair expectations.
Is there anything wrong with hearkening back to more traditional familial environment? Is there anything wrong with using lazy story-and-joke-telling methods? No, there isn’t. The problem is that Modern Family wants it both ways, to be both a groundbreaking comedy that deals with the state of modern families, and also a show that can bring in the most viewers possible and keep them comfortable both in terms of comedy and family. Maybe there’s a show that could do that – All In The Family and The Simpsons proved it’s possible – but Modern Family isn’t that show. Heralding it as anything other than a serviceable comedy insults both the groundbreaking programs of the past and the ones willing to take real risks today.