‘Modern Family’: Maintaining the Fantasy

[24 May 2010]

By Marisa Carroll

When Modern Family premiered on ABC back in September, I resisted it. Nearly universal acclaim can arouse suspicion in a person. (See: The Wire, two years and running in the ole Netflix queue.) But after hearing yet another likeminded friend sing its praises, one night I buckled and watched “The Pilot.” The last two minutes of that episode alone were enough to justify the accolades. I was hooked.

In that episode, Mitchell (Jesse Taylor Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) introduced their newly adopted baby, Lily, to Mitchell’s uptight extended family. The Pritchett and Dunphy clans had no idea that the couple had pursued adoption, much less traveled to Vietnam to fetch their child. Mitchell wanted to reveal the news tentatively, but Cameron had other ideas. Dressed in a caftan, he marched into the living room carrying Lily over his head, “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King blaring from stereo and a spotlight shone on the swaddled infant.

It was an unexpected, off-the-wall moment entirely true to its characters, and hilarious enough to make even my Arrested Development snob of a brother almost wet his pants. Most episodes of the first season lived up to the promise displayed in “The Pilot,” a remarkable accomplishment for a network comedy. Modern Family uses the mockumentary-style format popularized by The Office to present the ups and downs of Cameron and Mitchell; Mitchell’s neurotic sister, Claire (Julie Bowen), and her bumbling husband, Phil (the outstanding Ty Burrell); plus Mitchell and Claire’s father, Jay (Ed O’Neill), and his sultry second wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Rico Rodriguez, who stars as Gloria’s preternaturally wise tween son, Manny, is the standout among the child actors, though Nolan Gould’s performance as the dimwitted Dunphy son, Luke, is also hilarious.

Like many sitcoms before it, Modern Family regularly wraps up its major storylines on a warm-hearted note, but it tweaks the formula by ending with a barbed coda that undercuts the sentiment. In the recently aired episode “Hawaii,” Phil surprised Claire with a vow-renewal ceremony (their first wedding 16 years prior was a honeymoon-less shotgun affair). The entire family attended, the event producing joyous tears, loving embraces, and a poignantly grainy home video. Then, in the episode’s epilogue, a magnanimous Claire told Phil that she would want him to remarry if anything were ever to happen to her. Not only did he understand, but he also had wife Number Two already picked out: “Oh, Vicky Conroy. She works in my office, she’s very organized, the kids love her…” Daughter Alex concurs: “Are you talking about Vicky? Mom, she’s awesome.” And chaos is restored.

Much of the show’s humor is derived from high expectations being undermined by the realities of everyday life. In a Valentine’s Day-themed episode, Phil and Claire met at a bar, prepared to role-play as married salesman Clive and his conquest, Julianna, but maintaining the fantasy proved to be a struggle.

Claire: [as “Julianna”] I just so happen to like married men. Tell me about your wife.
Phil: [as “Clive] She’s beautiful, of course.
Claire: If she’s so beautiful, then why are you here with me?
Phil: Because she’s always so tired and making lists of things for me to do.
Claire: [annoyed] Maybe if you did them, she wouldn’t be so tired.
Phil: Oh, no… she could make lists for days. But let’s get back to your mouth and how sexy it is.

The sharp writing is bolstered by the actors’ flair for physical comedy. There are too many examples from the season to list here, but some highlights include Phil’s tussle with a kidney stone in “Up All Night”; a montage of Gloria’s horrified reaction to a human-sized Dog Butler statue that she dubbed “El Diablo”; Cameron’s turn as Fizbo, perhaps the world’s toughest clown; and Claire and Mitchell’s recreation of their “Fire & Nice” ice-skating performance from childhood.

While the season finale hewed to formula, offering enough zingers to keep it funny, it failed to live up to the series’ best episodes. Too much time was devoted to a tired send-up of The Godfather’s baptism sequence; here it involved juxtaposing scenes of Cameron singing “Ava Maria” at a wedding with those of Mitchell nearly destroying their home as he chased an invading pigeon. A second problem was the episode’s lackluster and sappy ending, where the family portrait session devolved into a raucous mud fight. It seemed forced and, like the Godfather parody, done before. 

Such staleness takes another form in Modern Family‘s reluctance to show Mitchell and Cameron being affectionate with each other. (Jay and Gloria are not especially physical, but Claire and Phil have locked lips a number of times.) Viewers have seen Mitchell and Cameron embrace and (once) asleep together in bed, but when Cameron caressed Mitchell’s knee in the season’s penultimate episode, the gesture jumped out as being the first “beyond fraternal” touch between them in 23 episodes.

That the show has crafted a gay couple as nutty and endearing as any straight one, but hasn’t committed to showing them in the same light romantically, is frustrating. I look forward to seeing this aspect of the series become more “modern.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/126057-modern-family/