|The cast of Modern Family|
Note: The following contains Spoilers
Modern Family (ABC), like The Big Bang Theory (CBS), is an excellent comedy that offers up likeable, compelling characters while not forgetting to make the viewer laugh. But while The Big Bang Theory is an old-fashioned – in style – comedy, with a laugh track, videotaped before a live audience with a two camera system, Modern Family is a more modern creature, a filmed on location, single-camera show without a laugh track. But just as The Big Bang Theory also uses hip lingo and au courant situations, Modern Family displays a taste for old-school humour, pratfalls, slapstick and the like. Melding those two disparate elements make it a very unique series indeed. The best two comedies on television both can claim that stature, allowing each to make their distinctive mark.
In so many significant ways, Modern Family is the finest exemplar of how we actually are today. Created by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not the Taxi/Back to the Future actor), with nine other writers on the producing team, it centres on three Los Angeles, California-based families, who are related to each other in various ways. The traditional nuclear family, the Dunphys, are represented by Claire (Julie Bowen), a stay-at-home mother (yes, they still exist!), Phil (Ty Burrell), a real estate agent, and their three kids, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Claire’s father, curmudgeonly business owner Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) has a blended family, made up of his Colombian second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her preternaturally grown-up teenage son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). And Claire’s brother, Jay’s son, lawyer Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) also has a stay-at-home partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet); the couple recently adopted a Vietnamese girl Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons). Each week, interspersed with one-on-one interviews by an off-camera individual for a purported mock documentary, Modern Family wrings smart and knowing episodes out of seemingly ordinary, even banal scenarios that nevertheless result in some of the funniest moments ever seen on network TV. It’s not surprising it dominated the comedy categories at last week’s Emmy Awards. (It won for Best Comedy series, and there were nods for Bowen and Stonestreet as Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively, and a Best Directing award for Levitan.). This is one show that deserves the accolades it regularly receives.
|Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet|
The fourth season opener, which ran last week, followed up on the ramifications of Gloria’s big reveal from the 2011/12 season finale, namely her unexpected pregnancy, something she’s thrilled about, but scared to tell Jay, suspecting (wrongly) that he won’t be as happy as she is. Shanghaied by Phil and two of Jay’s friends to celebrate his 65th birthday on a fishing trip, Jay was starting to feel that he’d reached the end of the road in terms of life’s potential for excitement. Gloria’s news rejuvenated him and made him look forward to having a baby in the house. That type of unpredictable revelation is common to the series which, except for the odd (acceptable) dose of sentiment, is a scrupulously honest and uncompromising take on how people and families feel, act and relate to each other. That was evident in how members of her family, immediate and extended, took to Gloria’s news. Manny saw himself lessened as he would no longer, he believed, be the apple of his mother’s eye, nor the centre of attention in the Pritchett clan. Claire, cattily, couldn’t help grinning when she contemplated how ‘fat’ Gloria would become. Her jealousy of the Latina bombshell is partially fuelled by her awareness that Phil lusts after Gloria, too, a state of affairs that allows the gifted Burrell to mutter double entendres that she doesn’t quite entirely hear. (His goofy shtick is reminiscent of Frasier’s Niles’ classic fixation on Daphne Moon, his father’s caregiver.) And Cam and Mitchell, who just failed in their attempts to adopt a baby boy to add to their family, have conflicted feelings, at best.
Modern Family often exposes the lie at the heart of most sitcoms revolving around families, namely that negative, narcissistic or even ugly emotions cannot and do not co-exist with love and acceptance in the bosom of the family unit(s), but does it in a more, nuanced subtle way then the political fights Mike and Archie had on All in the Family. For one thing, there’s real animosity between sisters Haley and Alex, such as I don’t think I’ve seen displayed on a comedy show before, with the former more of a party girl (and not much into school) and the latter a nerdy brainiac. While Haley did let slip in one episode that she thought Alex was beautiful and Alex was genuinely excited when her sister graduated high school, it didn’t take away from the frequently vicious comments the siblings tossed at each other. Alex is not above making fun of Haley’s lack of book smarts, and Haley loves tossing barbs at Alex’s deficient (in her mind) social graces especially when it comes to attracting guys. Haley’s boyfriend, Dylan (Reid Ewing), doesn’t help her situation any; he’s pretty thick as Alex is quick to remark ad nauseum. Yet the two also know how to work their feuding to outwit Claire, who can be manipulated pretty easily by her daughters.
|Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen|
Cam and Mitchell may initially seem like gay stereotypes – their bickering and arguments define drama queen(s) to a T, but they, too, go beyond the obvious. Cam is quick to detect anti-gay slurs even when they don’t exist, as in one episode when he assumed that the accepting Haley and Alex were displaying prejudice when they doubted his ability to drive a truck on an errand the three had to run. They weren’t being intolerant; they simply thought he was too klutzy to do so, and they were right when he got them stuckon a median. But then Cam turned around, after being set straight (no pun intended) and derogatorily referred to a gay trucker who was trying to help the trio as 'she’, doubting that the other driver could pull off the difficult turn he couldn’t. He was wrong again, but the incident served to showcase how bigotry can cut more than one way and appear from unlikely sources. There was also the moving, beautifully understated depiction of Luke’s relationship with a crotchety, elderly next door neighbour (Philip Baker Hall), which didn’t play out as expected when the neighbour suddenly died. Luke seeming disinterest in that sad fact of life, which was his way of coping with the devastating news, was drawn out so carefully and in such a non-melodramatic, unexpected fashion that it made for riveting TV. So did one episode where Alex and Haley misunderstanding their parent’s squabble, determined that a divorce was in the offing. (Not a chance, as Phil and Claire are deeply in love and compatible even if Phil’s rah-rah attitude towards life often annoys the cynical Claire, and he stoically puts up with her rigidity and controlling manner.) The series acknowledged that Phil and Claire’s married life was not the norm today – most of the girls’ friends came from broken homes or reconstituted ones – and still managed to convey the fear Alex and Haley felt about becoming collateral damage in the divorce wars. Modern Family is always smart and knowing that way. You also saw a different side of Phil when he found out that Haley was having sex with Dylan, months after Claire already knew. His realization that his 'innocent' girl was growing up was handled with uncommon delicacy and taste, particularly for TV, so much so that I don't doubt parents of teenagers could recognize themselves in his uncomfortable reactions.
|Sofia Vergara and Ed O'Neill|
It’s important to note that Modern Family’s often groundbreaking portraits are not moralistic or unduly serious; they fit nicely into a comedic framework in a show that is still not afraid of the pie in the face, sometimes literally. Whether it’s Claire – whose coat is stuck on an escalator, with her wearing nothing on underneath (she was on a date night with Phil and things went awry as they often do with that pair); or in a seeming ‘lesbian’ clinch with Gloria when she tries to help her so she can get unstuck; or Phil’s amusing mooning over Gloria; or even Luke’s odd, off-kilter way of looking at life when he’s not being put in drag for family photos as ‘Betty-Luke’, Modern Family does not shy away from salacious moments – or implied sexually suggestive scenarios. (Apparently, though, Bowen is required by network censors to wear pasties over her nipples because they would show through her clothing, which is quite an odd example of censorship for a show like this.) Modern Family also possesses an absurdest soul as with Cameron’s former life as Fizbo the Clown; sometimes he sleep walks and wakes up next to Mitchell in full clown makeup and regalia. A lot of the series’ comedic highlights involve guest stars; the best so far Arrested Development’s David Cross as an officious city councilman who raises Claire’s ire; and Nathan Lane, as a flamboyant friend of Cam and Mitchell’s, whose moniker is the delicious Pepper Schwartz. Fred Willard (Fernwood 2 Night) changed gears in a more serious role as Jay’s emotionally distant father, and he won an Emmy for that appearance; Cheers’ Shelley Long also appeared as Jay’s needy ex-wife. And I must mention Rico Rodriguez, who's a hoot as the so-serious Manny, a teenager who's wise beyond his years (or thinks he is) and walks around with a perpetual worrying frown. His sombre observations on love and life are ridiculously overwrought, but sweet, too.
It’s really not all that surprising that Modern Family is such a sharp, cutting show. Levitan and Lloyd honed their comedy chops on such stellar, razor sharp series as Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show as well as underrated comedy Wings. (Levitan’s credit on Just Shoot Me, that awful David Spade show, seems a notable exception to his talented output.) And by dramatizing their own family situations, they’ve brought a rare verisimilitude to comedy series, network or cable. (Most cable successes, except for The Larry Sanders Show, were dramatic breakthroughs.) In fact, except for the characters’ socio-economic status (they are closer to the upper middle class than middle class), they’re just like you and I, your recognizable next door neighbours, friends, co-workers and family members. They aptly personify the way we live now, with many laughs, some tears and a whole lot of wit and imagination.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be doing a course on film censorship beginning Oct. 5. He will also be reprising his course on Sidney Lumet at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (Bloor and Spadina), beginning Monday October 15 from 7-9 p.m.