Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Modern Family": The Future is Now

It is now safe to say that, with the exception of a few CBS laggards, the laugh track is dead.

Let us pause for a moment, in order to spit on its grave. Sure, we have all spent many hours enjoying such shows; some were, indeed, quite good. They say that limitation breeds creativity, after all, and the typical sitcom had many limitations. Was this, however, really fair? Would you ever watch a live, studio drama? Imagine every plot twist being punctuated by an emphatic, "Ooooh!" from an audience. Imagine detectives being confined to one office in the police station, with cops running in, talking of the amazing clues they found off camera. It would be laughable, and not in a good way.

Countless recent sitcoms have proven that comedy deserves the same level of production value that dramas do. "The Office" regularly features some of the sharpest directing on TV. Any given episode of the late "Arrested Development" relied more on breakneck editing than an entire season of "24" does. "30 Rock" capitalizes on its New York City setting in a way that only "Law & Order" ever did in past years. So, when "Modern Family" comes onto the scene, looking to tackle the same, exact subject matter that the family-centric sitcoms of yore did, only emboldened by comedy's recent liberation from the studio audience, let us not underestimate its level of importance.

Right out of the gate, "Modern Family" ups the ante by featuring not one, but three families. It is a shrewd acknowledgment of the fact that the American family can no longer be boiled down to one unit of five characters. Our definitions of family are changing, and the show embraces this fact by featuring three of them.

First, and most typical, are the Dunphys. Their problems tend to be familiar sitcom fodder – the daughter inviting boys over, the father grappling with his attraction to a divorcée neighbor, the son getting his head stuck in a banister – but there is a fresh coat of incisiveness here. Phil (Ty Burrell), the father, is aware of just how dated he can seem and is constantly making attempts to seem younger ("High School Musical" factors in). Phil is an ass, and tends to bungle these attempts. He may sound like an archetypal sitcom dad on paper but, in practice, he has none of the values that always redeem the sitcom dad by the time the episode ends. In "Modern Family," the credits roll over footage of him beating his young son at basketball, then bragging about it. His wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), marks a subtle subversion of her role, as well. She finds his antics shameful and obnoxious, freely admitting that he does little to help with parenting and that she enjoys his fearing her, but never pulling out the "I love you, anyway" speech.

Second, comes the Delgado-Pritchetts. Jay (Ed O'Neill), Claire's father, is well into his midlife crisis, but he has recently married a young, Columbian woman, Gloria (Sofía Vergara). She, along with her son from another marriage, throws quite a wrench into the lifestyle he desires. The son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is particularly problematic, as he is quite sensitive and has little in common with the blunt Jay. Like with the Dunphys, resolutions are never predictable. Jay, however, has a very genuine desire to connect with his child and the circumstances are far more complicated. He is often a surprising source of serious moments for the show and Ed O'Neill has the range to pull them off – the first episode concludes with a beautifully deceptive speech that encapsulates this balance.

Finally, there are Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Ferguson) and Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), years-long boyfriends who have just adopted a baby girl. Mitchell is a bit of a self-hating gay and Cameron, on the other hand, is quite flamboyant. It leads to much of their screen time being devoted to their ongoing struggle with how they wish to present themselves to a world that still does not fully accept them. Much of Mitchell's issues seem to be rooted in insecurities relating to his father, Jay, though; he and Cameron both have enough depth to suggest that later plotlines will go beyond the fact that they are gay. The second episode, for example, features a fairly familiar plotline about them joining a daycare center, although a large aspect of it is about Mitchell accepting that many will see him and Cameron as "the gay couple."

Filling a half hour comedy with plotlines involving three families may seem like overload, but this is far from the truth. The series' first two episodes have been very well paced and feature strong themes that intertwine the threads quite well. The second episode is entitled "The Bicycle Thief" and makes the most of its allusion to the classic, Italian neo-realist film by dealing with fatherhood (and petty larceny). Borrowing the vérité style of shows like "Arrested Development," this show is also able to move at a rapid clip, making multiple viewings pay off with previously unheard jokes and ensuring that the comedy remains understated.

The casting of Ed O'Neill is no mistake. He was made famous by "Married with Children," a show that openly attempted to blow sitcom conventions out of the water in the late 1980's. Quality comedies like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Bernie Mac Show" followed years later with similar intentions, but they wore them on their sleeves, as well. "Modern Family" has no such aspirations. It is past trying to rock the boat; it is, instead, an evolutionary step for TV comedy.

Time Magazine's James Poniewozik marks the end of the sitcom revolution with the "Seinfeld" reunion on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It is a valid viewpoint, but "Seinfeld" was always audacious, so it hardly brings TV comedy's rebirth full circle the way that "Modern Family" does. This show is, at once, entirely familiar and completely unique; it is the final step away from an archaic form of situation comedy. It acknowledges the value that many of its precursors had by tackling the age-old subject of the family unit with no aspirations to edginess but, for the first time ever, it pays these themes the respect of executing them with legitimate filmmaking.

"Modern Family" is, in short, the very best show that you have seen a million times before – only, now, you can choose when to laugh. By the looks of it, that will be very often.

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