[30 September 2009]
How do you say anything new about the state of the American family? Modern Family does it by following a diverse extended family. Its mockumentary format has interviewers asking direct questions about the members’ lives and getting funny and self-incriminating answers. With its deft writing and sharp performances, the show is a telling snapshot of how families live now.
Each of the three families pictured redefines domestic households in different ways. During the first episode, which aired 23 September, Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), introduced as being “married 16 years,” are a white, upper-middle class, suburban heterosexual couple with three children. Boring sitcom family, right? Wrong. These folks are nuts. By the end of the episode, realtor Phil creeped everyone out with his efforts to impress and accidentally shot his son, his daughter’s boyfriend, and himself with a BB gun.
In a Real World-style direct address, Phil explained his “manifesto”: “I’m the cool dad, that’s my thang. I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud. OMG: oh my god, WTF: why the face. Um, I know all the dances to High School Musical, so…” Cut to a scene of him dancing in the living room like an awkward stork, sporting a varsity jacket and a smug grin. Cut to his kids trapped on the couch, watching his epic uncoolness in absolute horror.
He regularly dodges Claire’s efforts to make him enforce any discipline by being magnificently inappropriate. When teenager Haley (Sarah Hyland) brought Dylan (Rid Ewing) to the house for the first time, a worried Claire asked Phil to “deal with it” when the teens headed upstairs to Haley’s room. Phil tried to bond with Dylan instead, saying, “You two keep it real, you know what I mean, son.” Dylan replied in the only way he could: “No, I don’t.”
As odd as he may seem, Modern Family suggests that Phil is instead typical, a man trying too hard to keep up amid a world gone increasingly irrational. When son Luke (Nolan Gould) shot his younger sister Alex (Ariel Winter) with a BB gun, Claire determined that Phil should shoot Luke. They then took several minutes to schedule it into their calendar, at which point Luke gave up protesting the punishment because Phil noted that if it was already in the almighty calendar, there was nothing he could do about it.
If family is a series of lunatic skits for Phil and Claire, it is an extended midlife crisis punch-line for Jay and Gloria. Young and attractive Gloria (Sofia Vergara) hails from a purportedly violent Colombian village, while her older husband Jay (Ed O’Neill, reprising his boorish role from Married with Children) is the suburban white guy just trying to keep up with his wife and young stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez). While this storyline examines ethnic stereotypes and satirizes coarse male behavior (including Jay’s affection for trendy clothes that make him look even older), it also shows Jay’s efforts to understand the culture of his wife of six months.
The multicultural negotiations of this couple are nothing compared to the playful union of Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), a gay white male couple who have just adopted a baby girl, Lily, from Vietnam. Together five years, they seem the most functional of the couples. Throughout the first episode, they delivered more-or-less witty banter with corny love, as when Cam teased Mitchell for losing his cool at one point: “Redheaded dad is angry dad.” Such moments reveal that the show’s seeming satire can also reinforce stereotypes. Mitchell said more than once how dramatic Cameron is, and proved it by introducing Lily to Mitchell’s extended family using stage lighting and the soundtrack from The Lion King.
The first episode ended with the revelation that Mitchell’s extended family is actually his father Jay and his sister Claire and their families. Yes, they’re all one big multicultural “Circle of Life.”