Sometimes I just want to watch something short, sweet and funny to fill up a 20 minute gap in my day. When I was younger, I watched Friends on its thousands of reruns on E4 all the time, it was just light and entertaining, though not particularly good. Still, it was easy to digest and a good time waster. But there comes a point where you just get sick of watching the same show over and over. That’s when I started searching for new American comedies to fill up my time. Community was one of those; Modern Family is the other. They’re very different styles of comedy though, but both shows just seem to be of a higher calibre than other shows on the market. Whereas Community excels in its meta-humour and its satirical attitude to sitcoms, Modern Family embraces its heritage as an American comedy but presents it in a way which seems original, fresh and heart-warming. I am always impressed by the depth these characters have, and the way their dynamics play off each other is a delight to watch. Plus, the way the show’s episodes are constructed around a single unifying theme really adds to that kind of after-school special feeling. It rarely feels like a forced theme either, and the coming together of separate storylines by the end of each episode reinforces the key theme: family. The unity, the depth and the wit which saturates this show is why I recommend it as a great show to watch if you’re looking for some light entertainment.
Modern Family follows the antics of three distinct families which are all related in different ways in a mockumentary style. They do this much in the same way The Office and Parks and Recreation do it, with talking head interviews interspersed with real-time action. I’m not sure this style really adds much to the genre, but it’s relatively unobtrusive and can provide some brilliant moments of humour. The constant hindsight commentary from the characters also serves as a cinematic device to ramp up the tension prior to major incidents of drama and hilarity.
So, who does Modern Family portray? There is the Dunphy family, the classic nuclear family consisting of Claire, Phil, and their three kids, Haley, Alex and Luke. Claire is the sister of Mitchell, who has a gay partner Cameron and an adopted daughter called Lily (the Tyler-Pritchett family). Then, there is Claire and Mitchell’s father, Jay Pritchett, who has recently married a hot young wife called Gloria who already had a son called Manny (who I will refer to as the Pritchett family). These three distinct families have their own plotlines, but given their close relationships, these plotlines often overlap in varying ways. One episode, for example, might center around a dinner party being hosted by one of the families; another might be about an incident at the school both Luke and Manny attend. Overall, the storylines are weaved together rather masterfully and it never feels like the characters are being forced into anything. The relationships between everyone feel very organic and realistic.
For example, at the start of the series, Gloria, the newest member of this dysfunctional family, is met with considerable opposition from Claire, who considers Gloria a gold-digger. After all, her father is rich, Gloria is young and busty and comes from a poor background in Colombia. But by the end of the first season, the exemplary behaviour from the lovely and affectionate Gloria leads to her acceptance into the family. But the show doesn’t take the obvious routes in showing Gloria as a good person. Too often I find there is a trope of a gold-digger who is revealed not to be because she has a fortune of her own, or she’s not a gold-digger because the man involved is not actually rich. It’s an easy way out of the characterisation. Modern Family does the much harder job of trying to portray both sides of the Claire-Gloria conflict fairly. From Claire’s point of view, we can understand why she would think Gloria is a gold-digger. She doesn’t do many favours to that impression when we see her elaborate wardrobe, her designer handbags and her insistence on wearing beautiful high heels everywhere. Yet, at the same time, the show gives us glimpses into Gloria’s true intentions by showing her devotion to her son, and the more affectionate moments between Jay and Gloria. We see her fiercely defend her family, we see her defend herself from those libellous impressions, and we realise after a few episodes that she does love her family very much. We come to realise, as Claire does, that Gloria is the real deal and a genuinely sympathetic character.
The cast is brilliant and there’s not a single character I dislike. If I had to criticise any of the characters, it might be the children because they often feel a little two-dimensional and follow very established stereotypes. Haley, the eldest sister, is airheaded and concerned more about boys and pretty dresses than her education. Alex, the middle sibling, is a nerdy, sarcastic girl who feels overshadowed by her prettier sister. Luke is dumb and reckless, the kind of kid who would gladly lick batteries and stick their hand in tubs of goo. However, in more recent episodes, they’ve done a lot towards showing the kids grow up and become their own people. Haley goes off to college and growing up seems to improve her relationship with Alex. Alex grows out of her shell and embraces her nerdiness and finds her niche. Luke, whilst still reckless, is now portrayed as more conniving and manipulative, able to convince adults he’s a sweet innocent young child who’s too dumb to know better, but is in fact, a great reader of people and a mastermind of conflict.
Still, it’s clear that the adult characters steal the show and their lives are much more interesting. The situations they get themselves into are just hilarious. For example, there is a time where Claire and Phil attempt to do some sexy roleplaying for Valentine’s Day and book into a hotel and pretend to be strangers meeting in a bar. Claire shows up wearing only a coat, and leaves with her debonair stranger played by Phil. But as they go up the escalator, her coat belt gets caught, and she is forced into the embarrassing situation where she can’t take her coat off. Lo and behold, Jay and Gloria are also at the same hotel. Gloria immediately understands what the problem is and helps Claire out of her predicament. This is clearly a show intended for adults, but not a crude sense of humour and those who can relate to those cringey, awkward moments in their lives. It is just wonderfully written and most of all, it is intelligent writing which doesn’t patronise its audience with easy comedic devices. Though it can be slapsticky at times, it integrates it so well into the overall themes of the episode, that even a pratfall can be a moment of comedic genius.
But what is most important in the show is how real their relationships seem and the general feel-good vibe of the show. It is the casts’ reactions to each other, their growing relationships with their family, and their ability to overcome, forgive and move on from unfriendly incidents is what makes this show so heart-warming. Watching their parenting antics may often remind viewers of their own parents; from the child’s perspective, they seem like heroes who manage to sort out everything in just the nick of time, but what Modern Family shows is that parents are just as clueless as children most of the time. And watching how each family comes to terms with the nuances, weird personality quirks and downright annoying aspects of each other, is a really enjoyable journey.
Modern Family feels smart, it feels well-constructed and the comedic pacing is just spot on in every instance. It sets itself apart from other sitcoms by wholeheartedly embracing sitcom tropes but at the same time, turning them on their head and refusing to tread the most used path. It covers old ground like conflicts borne out of miscommunication, conflicts borne out of secrets and conflicts borne out of rivalry, but it does it in sparkling new ways which can be shocking but absolutely hilarious. It really is humour for the modern consumer, one which speaks to the kind of issues that all of us face at some point in our lives. Friends is almost 20 years old now, and it feels really dated. Modern Family however, is fresh and plays off 21st century problems. Consider the scene where Phil tries to show his wife how to operate his new all-in-one entertainment centre with its complicated remote and hundreds of different menus and options. Or how about Mitchell and Cameron’s story about when they try to get their adopted Vietnamese child into an exclusive pre-school and are told by their friends that they’ll be a shoo-in given the diversity targets in all schools these days? The show has a great awareness of the kind of issues facing modern families, issues which weren’t applicable even 20, 30 years ago. These novel challenges provide bucket loads of humour which I haven’t quite seen another show capture. Other comedies, to me, try to be more timeless and show situations which could be the same whether they occurred in the medieval times or in the 20th century. Modern Family however lives up to its name, and very clearly is trying to be the comedy of our times. I’m sure if I watched it 20 years from now, it would seem so strange, like a period piece of the 21st century, a Mad Men-type show for the 2000s. But this is part of its brilliance; its situations can be ridiculous and over the top, but there is a core message which is ultimately very touching. Plus the show is just funny, and its humour transcends the ages, despite its topical nature.
It really is the ultimate family sitcom, with something for everyone to enjoy whether you’re 10 years old or 80.