All in the Modern Family

The sitcom is experiencing a revival. Every broadcast network has a night devoted to the half-hour genre that had been left for dead just a few years ago. NBC has its uncomfortable workplaces, CBS is home to the spawn of Friends, and Fox has its animation broods. This year, ABC jumped back into the sitcom game as well. Most of their offerings are middling at best, but there is one standout: Modern Family.

It is the story of three families — a May-December multicultural couple raising her child, a gay couple with an adopted daughter, and a nuclear unit with two parents and three kids — that all happen to be branches of a larger extended family. The December patriarch of the first family is also the father of one parent from each of the other families. Don’t worry, it is not as complicated as I made it sound.

What is so refreshing about Modern Family is that it manages to be about a family where the individuals actually care about each other in a believable, non-cloying way. It avoids both the saccharine triteness of yore and the ugly animosity that has marked recent clans. For many years, I thought the live-action family sitcom was all but extinct. Turns out it was just waiting to evolve.

A long, long time ago in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was one kind of sitcom family on TV. The kids were precocious and mischievous, getting into just enough trouble to elicit laughs but cause no real damage. The parents were loving and kind, stern but fair, and totally unrealistic. These families were so bizarre that their very names became still-used code words for the type of families none of us actually had — Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, The Brady Bunch.

This was followed by the groundbreaking All in the Family in 1971. The Bunkers actually looked like families that people knew — deeply flawed, bitterly funny and mired in conflict. The racist Archie Bunker going toe to toe with his hippie son-in-law, dubbed Meathead, with wife Edith and daughter Gloria stuck in the middle, was unlike anything else in the land of sitcom families. It was raw and brilliant, providing incisive social commentary.

In the 1980s, the sweet and sarcastic strains of sitcom families were starting to interbreed. The combination worked well with shows such as The Cosby Show and Family Ties, which managed to muster up just enough bite to make the individual family members seem more real, but were still basically descendants of those gentle 1960s sitcom families.

Then, in 1988, Roseanne blew the walls off the sitcom family again. Like the Bunkers, the Conners were almost too honest for a sitcom. This landmark show tackled issues of race, class, gender and sexual orientation that nothing else on TV could touch. While the substance of Roseanne was remarkable, the tone also destroyed family sitcoms for years. Much of the humor of the show derived from the verbal abuse the family members heaped on each other. Granted, it was pitch perfect for the blue collar Conners and particularly the personality of Roseanne herself. But taken in combination with The Simpsons and Married With Children, which both debuted successfully around the same time, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood became that sitcom families needed to eat each other alive to be funny. This trend finally reached its most unfortunate mutation about a decade later in the form of Everybody Loves Raymond and its seemingly endless clones, each one with a family that was so ugly in its treatment of itself that it just was not funny anymore. Stripped of any social commentary to undergird the conflict, all we were left with was dysfunction and lots of it.

There is plenty of dysfunction on display in Modern Family, but the humor does not come from an endless stream of cheap shots and mindless putdowns. It’s not 24 minutes of insults and one minute of wrapping up the week’s plot with an empty reminder that these characters love each other. Instead, the comedy derives from the quirks of the many interesting flawed characters and the way that the other family members deal with them. That’s what families do — we drive each other crazy but still love each other. It is not a constant stream of verbal abuse and insincere reconciliation. Modern Family shows us that families can be more complicated than that and still be funny. That may not sound as revolutionary as All in the Family and Roseanne, but given the recent state of the sitcom family it turns out it is.