ABC’s “Modern Family,” which premieres on Wednesday (Sept. 23) is a fine example of one of TV’s most elusive creatures: A functional family comedy.
As he was working on his own review of “Modern Family,” My Buddy Sepinwall asked if this was a good place to use “the Tolstoy quote.” He didn’t need to clarify that he was referring to the opening line of “Anna Karenina,” which goes something like, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a great writers’ crutch, that line. I’ve used it myself on several occasions.
I don’t know if Sepinwall ended up using it, but as I thought it over, it struck me that creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd have made a conscious effort to disprove Tolstoy. The three interwoven clans in “Modern Family” aren’t even slightly dysfunctional. They’re three totally different versions of what constitutes a contemporary American family, but all three families are happy, loving and operational, even if they aren’t the Cleavers or the Nelsons.
Somewhere, there’s a Right Wing advocacy group that’s going to have to wrap its mind around the idea that a show featuring a committed gay couple and their adopted Vietnamese baby may end up espousing the most traditional values of any show on TV.
Most viewers, though, won’t need to deal with the politics and it should take no time at all to wrap your mind around the idea that “Modern Family” ranks with “Community” as the season’s funniest new comedy.
[Review after the break…]
“Modern Family” has a universalized title that I didn’t exactly love until I decided to think of it as a joint homage to the 1973 proto-reality landmark “An American Family” and Albert Brooks’ landmark 1979 mockumentary “Real Life.” That’s how the series itself plays out.
Directed by Jason Winer, “Modern Family” is structured as a mockumentary of sorts, verite, but not quite as verite as “The Office.” Without any background explanation, we know that film crews have had a lot of access to three families:
Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen) are raising three kids (Sarah Hyland, Nolan Gould and Ariel Winter). She’s a former party girl determined not to let her kids go down a similar irresponsible path. He’s determined to be the Cool Dad, sometimes not understanding the boundaries between being a parent and a friend.
Jay (Ed O’Neill) is married to the much younger Gloria (Sofia Vergara). He’s already moved past middle age into the phase where all he wants to do is relax and wear comfortable tracksuits, while she’s a Latina firecracker (played as a winking stereotype). They’re raising her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez), a soulful romantic at 11.
Finally, there’s Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) — Yes, somebody must have liked “Hedwig” — who have been together for five years. Mitchell is serious and a bit neurotic, while Cameron enjoys grand gestures. They just adopted a daughter from Vietnam.
It’s hard to distill the effectiveness of “Modern Family” into a single word, but the one I’d use is “sharp.” Despite shifting between three stories, introducing 10 main characters (11 if you include the baby), both in a loose plot and in direct-address confessional moments, “Modern Family” flows with a precise pace and rhythm which has to be attributed to Winer. The punchlines flow and overlap in the rule-breaking fashion of single-camera comedies, but on several occasions, Winer even has two payoffs building simultaneously through crosscutting. It’s masterful at times.
“Modern Family” has no interest in contrived drama to indicate how wacky these families are. Phil and Claire are concerned that their eldest daughter is having a boy over. There’s no need to heighten anything by having her confess her desire to have sex or anything like that, because sometimes the ordinary fears of caring parents in an ordinary situations are just funnier. The banality of everyday experience is something most shows wouldn’t have the confidence to do, especially in something as crucial as a pilot. With three couples, all three have disagreements, but there’s no shouting or overreacting, no flailing or gesticulating. “Modern Family” is going to occupy Wednesday space with “Cougar Town” and “The Middle,” which both generate a few laughs, but those other two shows have to work much harder. [“Hank,” the fourth comedy on the night, is nothing but effort, with no laughs to be found.]
It helps when you have a cast this terrific. I mentioned that “Modern Family” has 10 main characters, but no weak links among the actors. That includes all four kids, even though I’m not going to discuss them individually here. Atticus Shaffer of “The Middle” (premiering next week) is proof that there’s nothing inherently wrong with ultra-sitcomy child stars if they’re good, but the “Modern Family” kids are just natural, even working within the show’s stylistic confines.
As for the six adults, I could focus on any them, really. For some of them, it’s like they’re set free after being the best part of many bad shows. Ty Burrell, he of “Out of Practice” and “Back to You,” has a face for drama, timing for comedy and when he performs a number from “High School Musical” or attempts to showcase his knowledge of texting abbreviations, it’s an inspired kind of deadpan alchemy. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, he of “The Class” and “Do Not Disturb,” has been turning neurosis into laughs for years, but may have finally have found a worthy vehicle. Ferguson’s withering yin is complimented by Stonestreet’s broad, exuberant yang.
Vergara’s had one awful ABC sitcom (“Hot Properties”) and one solid ABC sitcom (“Knights of Prosperity”) and while she remains stunningly gorgeous, what’s more interesting is how she keeps getting better and better at making her heavy accent into an asset. Vergara’s delivery of the phrase “Gloomy Gus” is not accidentally hilarious.
Bowen and O’Neill will probably be overlooked a bit both because they’re known quantities and because their roles are more reactive, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable contributors.
Because they’re both single camera comedies focusing on eccentric families and because they’re both tremendously funny, some people will pay “Modern Family” the honor of comparing it to “Arrested Development.” But where “Arrested Development” actually was a dysfunctional family comedy, lacing nearly all of its relationships with a brilliant cynicism, “Modern Family” may actually have enough heart to become a success. With single-camera comedies, the tendency is to accuse them of a lack of warmth, but “Modern Family” is open and embracing. After a long rough patch in comedy development, ABC finally has some sitcom momentum going and maybe “Modern Family” is one that people will watch.