This is the fifth of five Telegenics examining the state of the American sitcom in the second decade of the 21st Century. The first was on Community; the second on How I Met Your Mother, the third on Big Bang Theory, and the fourth on 30 Rock.
Modern Family’s Three Families. Front Frame: The Dunphys—Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex Ariel Winter), Phil (Ty Burrell), and Claire (Julie Bowen). Back Left Frame: The Pritchetts—Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Jay (Ed O’Neill), Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Back Right Frame: The Pritchett-Tuckers—Lilly (Jaden and Ella Hiller), Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet). Image from Amazon.com.
Cam: We’re a very traditional family.
Mitchell: That’s what the disabled lesbian shaman who blessed Lily’s room said, too.
“Travels with Scott” (Modern Family 1.21)
This exchange between two married gay men with an adopted Vietnamese child (Lily) takes place in the anything-but-traditional family sitcom Modern Family (hereafter MF), a critical and ratings hit about to begin its third season on ABC.1
Over the course of its history, the American family sitcom has given us intact nuclear families (Leave It to Beaver, CBS/ABC, 1957-63), The Beverly Hillbillies, CBS, 1962-71); blended families (The Brady Bunch, ABC, 1969-74); single-mothered (One Day at a Time, CBS, 1975-84); single (My Three Sons, ABC/CBS, 1960-72), double (Two and a Half Men, CBS, 2003— ), and triple-fathered (Full House, ABC, 1987-95) families; African American families (The Jeffersons, CBS, 1975-1985; The Cosby Show, NBC, 1984-1992); working class families (Roseanne, ABC, 1998-97); cartoon families (The Flintstones ABC, 1960-67, The Simpsons, FOX, 1989— ; King of the Hill (FOX, 1997-2010; Family Guy, FOX, 1999-2002, 2006- ); and utterly dysfunctional families (Married with Children, FOX, 1987-97); Arrested Development, FOX, 2003-2006).
Modern Family Tree (from Wikipedia)
Modern Family fits in none of these categories. The creation of Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd,2 MF tracks the extended family of patriarch Jay Pritchett, a wealthy businessman, played by Ed O’Neill (Married with Children’s put-upon schlump Al Bundy). Follow the family tree (courtesy of Wikipedia) above and you will see that Jay is the father (from a previous marriage) of two, daughter Claire and son Cameron, both with families of their own.
The Dunphy Family (Screen Capture from Modern Family)
None of the sitcoms examined in this series—Community, How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock—feature children, but each MF unit is married with children. The Dunphys, for example, have three: the innocent and not-too-bright Luke; middle child Alex, the really smart one; and boy-crazed schemer Haley. Their mother, Claire, is a homemaker and out-of-control control freak, and father Phil Dunphy is a real estate salesman, not terribly sure of his masculinity (In “Chirp” [2.7], for example, Phil spends the entire episode tracking down a malfunctioning smoke detector and confides to the camera that “changing a battery in a smoke detector is what they teach you in Man 101, so of course every time I hear that noise all I hear is ‘You’re not a man.’”)
The Pritchetts (Screen Capture from Modern Family)
Jay Pritchett is remarried to a beautiful Columbian woman, the former Gloria Delgado, whose comical English more than makes up for her status as a gold digger (or “coal digger” as Luke Dunphy misconstrues the label). Her son, the wise-beyond-his-years, erudite, and rather effete Manny, has been adopted by Jay, who is himself a kind of Archie Bunker for the 21st century, a man’s man who struggles with apparent but conquerable tendencies toward sexism, racism, and homophobia.
The Pritchett/Tucker Family (Screen Capture from Modern Family)
Since Jay’s son Mitchell, a ginger-headed, environmentally-conscious lawyer, is a gay man, in a relationship with the larger-than-life, drama queenish Cameron (Cam), Jay’s mild homophobia is often put to the test (he is just as likely to find himself perturbed by son-in-law Phil’s bumbling). In MF’s pilot Mitchell and Cam adopt an adorable Vietnamese child, and in almost every episode of the series they find themselves in the sort of marital/parental problems of any sitcom couple, but this time with a gay spin.3
Shot, like the American and British versions of The Office, in a faux-documentary style that allows all the characters, alone or with other family members, to have sitdown conversations directly with the camera. Nothing in the diegesis makes clear why this is happening,4 but the audience is more than ready to forgive the mode when it enables us to listen to such revelations as the following monologue from the adorably unaware Phil.
I am brave. Rollercoasters? Love ‘em. Scary movies? I’ve seen Ghostbusters like seven times. I regularly drive through neighborhoods that have only recently been gentrified. So yeah, I’m pretty much not afraid of anything . . . except for clowns. Never shared that with the family so, shh. I do have an image to maintain. I am not really sure where the fear comes from. My mother says it’s because when I was a kid I found a dead clown in the woods- but who knows? (“Fizbo,” 1.9)
Ty Burrell (Phil) (Photo from eonline.com)
Modern Family almost never hits us over the head with its laugh lines, which customarily sneak up on us, leaving us muttering “Did she just say that?” In an episode in which Cam steps in to direct a grade school musical and unwittingly proclaims that “One thing’s for certain. These kids will be Sondheimized” (“The Musical Man,” 2.19). (Predictably, the hilarious pun provoked anger in the American religious right.) Claire Dunphy tells her often idiotic husband “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have almost no faith in you” (“Unplugged,” 2.5), and Phil returns such “damning with faint praise” when he confesses to Claire that ”I love you when you’re human” (“The Old Wagon,” 2.1). Declaiming his real estate philosophy, Phil inadvertently admits his dim bulbness: “Every realtor is just a ninja in a blazer. The average burglar breaks in and leaves clues everywhere, but not me. I’m completely clueless” (“Airport 2010,” 1.22).
Modern Family may not be as ingenious as Community, as narratologically inventive as How I Met Your Mother, as cultishly clever as Big Bang Theory, or as madcap as 30 Rock. Behind its newfangled sitcom kinship, it remains a fairly traditional sitcom in form, sometimes inclined to be a bit maudlin, but always ready to subvert the sentiment with risqué humor and earthy situations. Sometimes Modern Family even offers us real insights. How can any parent not find solace in the often ascerbic Claire Dunphy’s advice in “The Kiss” (2.2)?
Your kids don’t need to know who you were before you had them; they need to know who you wish you were, and try to live up to that person. They’re gonna fall short, but better they fall short of the fake you than the real you.
The kind of wisdom only a sitcom can provide.
1 At the 2010 Emmy Awards Modern Family took home statues for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Picture Editing for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour); Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series—Eric Stonestreet; Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series—Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. At the recent 2011 awards, MF secured Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series; Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series—Michael Spiller; Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series—Ty Burrell; Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series—Julie Bowen; Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series—Jeffrey Richman and Steven Levitan..↩
2 The two had both worked on Frasier. Levitan had previously created Just Shoot Me (NBC, 1997-2003), and Lloyd had been responsible for Back to You and Out of Practice, neither of which survived beyond their first season.↩
3 As a guest on Conan, the heterosexual Stonestreet reveals his secret to playing a gay man: in all situations, he explains, he seeks to imitate how his mother would perform in similar circumstances.↩
4 In an interview with Steve Pond, for The Wrap, Christopher Lloyd explains the origin of the conceit:
[A]t the very outset, we had a character who was the documentary filmmaker. The idea was that this guy had been a Dutch exchange student who had stayed with the family 20 years earlier, and he always remembered them as “my American family.” And now he’s in his 30s, he’s become a documentarian, and he realizes, the dad is now on his second marriage, both the kids have grown up, one’s gay, so if I were to make a documentary about the American family, it would be a great place to start.
But as we got into it, it became a little bit cumbersome to service this Dutch documentarian every week. And it became a little bit self-conscious, I think. So we got rid of it.↩