TV

Quirky 'Modern Family' has the right formula

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — ABC took a major gamble in September when it opted to launch four new half-hour comedies as a two-hour package on Wednesday nights.

All of the networks have had trouble launching even one new comedy over the past decade, and those that survived often got their starts behind an established comedy, where they got spillover viewers.

ABC's bold plan — introducing "Hank," "The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" — has generally worked. Other than "Hank," a stinker that died quickly, the other shows have found audiences.

"Modern Family" — about a quirk-filled, multi-generational family — is the biggest new comedy of the year and found success without having that lead-in support from an established hit show. It has averaged about 10 million viewers each week, making it consistently a Top 25 show.

Even some of the cast members are befuddled by the show's popularity.

Ed O'Neill, who plays family patriarch Jay Pritchett, had success on another quirky family show — "Married With Children." Yet he doesn't know why "Modern Family" has become so popular so fast.

"I'm really amazed by the show. It's confusing to me. I'm not used to this sort of comedy. I'm not sure how it's working. I just know it is," O'Neill says during an interview on the set.

The show uses similar storytelling techniques to "The Office," where a fake film crew documents the antics of the various twisted limbs on the family tree. It's fast-paced as the show bounds from sit-down interviews to voyeuristic moments.

The story centers on O'Neill's character, who married a hot, younger woman (Sofia Vergara) with an offbeat son (Rico Rodriguez) at a time when he should be enjoying life as a grandfather. His children have their own foibles. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are first-time parents of an adopted baby from Vietnam. Daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) must deal with a host of wife and mom problems, including a husband (Ty Burrell) who thinks he is the hippest dad on the planet.

Sarah Hyland, who plays hormone-charged teen Haley, suggests the show has attracted such a large following because viewers see similarities between characters on the show and their own relatives.

"There's either that flamboyant uncle or that weird dad or the hot family member who everyone wants to be with but no one can. It's just a somewhat exaggerated version of everyone's lives," Hyland says.

Bowen says it's less complicated.

"We are not curing cancer here," Bowen says. "We're just talking about ordinary things in a funny way."

A lot of the ordinary things in the scripts come directly from the cast.

Bowen talks about how her husband once wired their entire house for cameras and ended up leaving holes in the walls. She got to watch her TV husband make the same mess.

Vergara offers the best explanation for why "Modern Family" has succeeded when so many other new comedies have failed.

"It's a perfect storm. It's a combination of things like the writers, the actors and the characters," she says. "And, we are having so much fun on the set that I think you can see that."

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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