‘Modern Family’: A Bubbly, ‘Soap’-Style Ensemble

For much of last season, and in the run up to the Second Season premiere, Modern Family was widely referred to in press and promos as the funniest show on television. An heir to the single camera, no-laugh-track likes of 30 Rock, Modern Family was supposed to be the more audience-friendly version of this as-yet still mostly unpopular approach to the sit-com. Part of its appeal was, supposedly, that it was clever (but not too clever), edgy (but never alienating), and would always culminate in a sweet, life-affirming final scene.

In fact, Modern Family is like a direct cross between The Office (with its faux documentary conceit), Arrested Development (with its examination of a wacky, wealthy, mostly white, extended family in Los Angeles) and Everybody Loves Raymond (with its we-made-a-big-pile-of-family-trouble-and-fixed-it-and-then-hugged-it-out-in-under-22-minutes format). So it is trying, and mostly succeeding, to be all things to all audiences: an Arrested Development for the Two and a Half Men crowd.

Modern Family was created by veteran TV producers Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!) and Christopher Lloyd (not the actor, but actually the man behind Frasier), and reflects their years of work in the field. These men have cobbled together into one show so many ideas that it can feel a bit dizzying – and, in less sure hands, might have felt a bit desperate. They really took three distinct shows – a gay men with a baby sitcom, an intergenerational/interracial marriage sitcom, and a standard funny husband/straight wife family sitcom – and put them into a Soap-style ensemble show. On this score, it’s a qualified success.

At its best, Modern Family is hilariously funny. It can also be curiously moving. but, at its worst, it’s a mess of zaniness that tries flailingly to tug at your heartstrings.

Too often, then, Modern Family wants to have it all, aiming for funny, poignant, and madcap all at once – the surreal and absurdly over-the-top final scenes of the season finale are a case in point. However, despite these occasionally unsuccessful moments, this is some quality situation comedy material. The characters are extremely well-drawn (with the exception of Julie Bowen’s Claire, who feels for all the world like your classic Type-A housewife stuck with a screwball husband and weird kids (Marge! Lois! Debra! etc!), the situations are intricate and clever, and the social politics are progressive.

Though it seems weird to pat a TV show on the back, I can’t help but be amazed at the way the gay couple is integrated into the program as though they were regular people and not caricatures or abstractions. They are easily the funniest and deepest characters on the show, too; their storylines tending to engage with the funniest (and most relatable) situations. Finally, a gay male couple on TV that feels like a loving couple and not just a pair of best pals who play dress up! Too bad that TV rules make it hard for them to actually touch each other, kiss, or show the physical side of their relationship (though it is said that this will be addressed next season and explained to be a result of Mitchell’s discomfort with public displays of affection).

For all of the effort put into these characters by the creators and writers, the actors are what makes Modern Family the triumphant program that it has been. From Ed O’Neil’s note-perfect take on the crotchety old patriarch (with a well-buried heart of gold) to Ty Burrell’s immensely awkward incarnation of the zany dad, from Sofía Vergara’s wildly camp Columbian trophy wife to Eric Stonestreet’s bravura performance as a man who “can’t tone it down” and Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s wonderful turn as the reserved man who loves him, it is the acting that pushes this material into the rare air. Though I remain unconvinced by the child actors, and am not at all sure that Julie Bowen can do anything more with the one-note character they have saddled her with, this is probably enough to keep me (and, probably, you) coming back for more.

This set comes with lots of extras, some of which are unnecessary, but many of which – especially the gag reels – are worthy additions. Nothing too fancy, but if you are a fan of the show you’ll be well served.

RATING 7 / 10