There’s nothing wrong with ABC’s Wednesday night sitcom, “Modern Family.” It’s one of the most watchable sitcoms on television; it’s genial, amiable, and warm-hearted. It occasionally elicits a smile but rarely contains moments of cleverness. It is as easygoing as any show on television; where other sitcoms often try too hard to be clever, “Modern Family” comes about itself effortlessly.
But that’s also it’s biggest drawback: There seems to be little to no effort put into the show’s writing and creative process. It relies almost singularly on the pleasant chemistry between the cast. The characters are staid; the situations are recycled; and the comedy is good-natured but bland.
Two and a half years ago, “Modern Family” debuted during the same month that NBC’s “Community” began airing, and at the time, it seemed liked the braver, more daring sitcom: It introduced a gay couple that didn’t fit within the Jack McFarland gay mold: They weren’t flaming caricatures. They were real characters with an honest, authentic relationship. They were surrounded by a wealthy grumpy man with a gorgeous, but shrieky trophy wife and her son, a precocious overweight Lothario. Phil Dunphy was the Dad version of Steve Carell in “The Office,” his wife was the controlling, OCD stay-at-home Mom, and they had three sitcom tropes for children: The pretty dim one; the smart one with glasses; and the doofus.
The problem with “Modern Family,” however, is that in two-and-a-half years, nothing has changed. The character traits introduced in the pilot have not budged. Phil still does goofy things that his son emulates; he still craves the approval of his father-in-law, Jay, who both learns a lesson and teaches one to his step-son, Manny, each week, while Gloria walks around in low-cut blouses and shrieks cliches that are equal parts amusing and obnoxious. Claire and Mitchell try to maintain control over a situation, while Phil and Cameron attempt to broaden their horizons, but after two and a half years and around 60 episodes, their horizons are no more broadened than when the show began.
Nothing happens. Nothing advances. Nobody grows. The relationship dynamics are static. The episodes are disconnected. And with an ensemble so large and only 22 minutes to play with, each character only gets three to five minutes of screen time each week, which is barely enough time to get to know anyone or develop a character, and so the characters necessarily have to rely on the same personality types, which are beaten into bloody pulps of pleasantness.
“Modern Family” is supposed to be about a 21st century family, but it’s only that in name: They don’t actually deal with “modern” or even serious problems. In fact, it’s a very conservative show: Petty, inoffensive jealousy is the biggest issue the show has ever tackled. Nobody ever even asks Claire why her arms are so freakishly skinny. That’s probably why it’s one of the highest rated shows on TV: It’s simple, familiar, and pleasant. Nothing more. And while there’s certainly something to be said for that, it’s also disappointing in a way. “Modern Family” may wind up running for a decade, but it will never be brave. It may occasionally make us laugh, but it will never challenge us. Yet it’s not exactly the show’s fault: As long as we never expect any thing more from “Modern Family,” it will never bother to give it to us. It’s the new “The Office”: We watch it not because we love it, but because it’s there.