Pop Dialectic: Modern Family

Modern Family just finished its long run of consecutive victories at the Emmy Awards earlier this year. Two writers take a look at the show and its legacy.

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Modern Family was always stuck in the past

Arielle Garmaise

When Modern Family premiered in 2009, it joined network television at a time when ‘normalized gay family was not yet part of the American lexicon, diversity rarely extended past blonde and brunette,’ and the nuclear family was confined to traditional binaries of age, gender, and ethnicity. Creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd offered a refreshing pitch; a mainstream television show that could explore complexities real families face; however, Modern Family never expanded beyond these stereotypes, and instead has spent the past six years gliding on what is merely a clever premise. As new television shows like Transparent and Black-ish take legitimate stances on inequality, Modern Family has lost its shock value, and consequently its Emmy streak. Their loss at the 67th Emmy’s was not an anomaly, but rather a reevaluation of an award they never rightfully deserved.

The show created a modernized format of its earlier predecessors in an attempt to refresh the increasingly outdated medium. The multi-camera setup was replaced with shaky handed documentary-style shots, two distinct storylines substituted with an overlapping three, and the fourth wall was broken as characters gabbed with an off-screen interviewer. Rather than transcend the passé sitcom of yesteryear, however, the format entered new, unfashionable territory: The mockumentary. Though successfully quirky on shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, the Modern Family mockumentary feels like a gimmicky way to glean ‘deep’ insights from its characters. Whereas television icons Michael Scott and Leslie Knope were beloved for their witty confessionals, Modern Family’s Pritchett family is prone to undeserving sentimentalities and cheap tongue-in-cheek jokes:“If you love something set it free—unless it’s a tiger!” Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) giggles in one episode.

For a show that is largely character driven, the writers depend on old-fashioned stereotypes and clichéd relationships. The Pritchett family tree starts with Jay (Ed O’Neil), a 60-sommething wealthy businessman who lives with his young, beautiful, Colombian wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay’s relationship with Gloria is limited to the same three jokes about his age, her beauty, and a banal cultural divide that exists between them. Her heritage is a prop, her accent is an easy punchline, and stories of drug-ridden Colombia are merely cutesy anecdotes. Never do they descend into any real issues, such as the intricacies of immigration, the hardships of adapting to a new culture, or the alienation of living in a neighbourhood devoid of other visibl minorities. Vergara is nothing more than the token actress of colour.

Jay’s relationship with his gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler-Ferguson) is equally limited. The two have wrestled with the same ‘traditional dad won’t accept gay son’ trope for the show’s entire run. Most of these tense interactions end with an optimistic revelation by Mitchell, where he beams that his father is finally understanding him, and a sweet gesture by Jay, where he publicly supports his son. This routine drags on during all seven seasons. Mitchell’s husband Cam (Eric Stonestreet) plays a stereotypically gay man—he wears paisley shirts, loves musical theatre, and shrieks enthusiastically. The only dimension to his character is that he plays football. On the other side of the family tree lie Jay’s daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) and her husband Phil. Phil may be the show’s only redeeming quality—his knack for physical comedy and quirky dad jokes are both genuinely endearing; however, Claire and her children are all unbearably familiar: type-A mom, stereotypical teenager, socially awkward nerd, and troublemaking youngest child each pushed past their capacities.

Modern Family was never the groundbreaking sitcom it claimed to be, because it never gave its characters a real chance to explore any depth or range. Instead, it relies on blasé jokes and predictable premises, confining both its actors and the diverse populations they are meant to represent to two-dimensional props. As new forms of television emerge, whether it be via Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, viewers are finally able to find ‘diversity' in lived-in characters with multi-layered problems. They can abandon the shallow sitcom, understanding Modern Family was never really  all that modern.


The predictable end of a well-deserved era

Anna St. Clair

When Modern Family won an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for its first season in 2009, it won for being a fresh, witty, crowd-pleasing comedy. With a focus on family, the show had a charm reminiscent of ‘80s sitcoms. Everyone could enjoy Modern Family, and it managed to be funny without veering into offensive territory. The runners-up for best comedy of 2009 included 30 Rock, Big Bang Theory, and The Office. 30 Rock’s razor-sharp satire and wit, while excellent, were heavily targeted to a liberal, white, and middle-class audience. Additionally, Big Bang Theory simply took the old Friends formula and added a slew of science and geek pop-culture references. Where other shows were trying to look smarter, Modern Family brought the classic TV sitcom into the 21st century with lovable characters and wit that took a fresh look at an unconventional American family.

Filmed as a mockumentary, the show follows Jay Pritchett in his new marriage to the much younger Gloria, as well as the families of his children, Claire and Mitchell. Through wit, observation, and slapstick, the generational and cultural divides of the Pritchett/Dunphy clan make for smart comedy. Jay is the old-fashioned baby-boomer who’s still uncomfortable with his gay son’s sexual orientation. And while writers can rely on Gloria’s Colombian accent and trophy-wife status for jokes, the show also addresses the culture clash of her new life. She supports her son Manny when he wants to show his Colombian heritage to his classmates and often reminds him of their humble beginnings. These antics and family drama are what make the Pritchett/Dunphy clan relatable to the average viewer.

What came to define Modern Family was its characters. With his corny jokes, and slapstick humour, Phil Dunphy became the poster child for suburban white dads everywhere. Yet a common criticism of the show was that characters were simply tired clichés, from the ditzy teenage daughter to the control-freak mom. In reality, the show’s tropes felt tired because of how similar they were to actual families. Yes, Jay is the conservative tough guy who likes to play golf and watch football, but who doesn’t have a grandfather or uncle who’s said something off-colour at a family dinner? Even Cameron, with his love of musical theatre and dramatic personality, still had enough quirks that he didn’t become a caricature.

Modern Family broke ground by focusing on two gay men who had been together for five years and recently adopted a child together, normalizing a taboo subject. The couple worry about being good parents, they bicker with each other, and at the end of the day they love each other.

Yet as the seasons went on, Cam and Mitchell’s relationship started to feel different. Rarely were they physically affectionate with each other—although Mitchell’s problem with PDA was addressed in a later episode. It was still hard not to believe their relationship was cooled down in order to make a straight audience comfortable. But with their wedding in season five, Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship began to feel real again.

Modern Family has always been an excellent comedy series that proved TV could be funny, warm, heartfelt, and smart. Where other shows might turn to a constant stream of sex jokes when they run out of material, Modern Family is a family show that never stopped being funny. Was it the best comedy on TV for five years running? Probably not. In its later seasons, the show increasingly relied on stereotyping its characters for laughs, and the wit and cultural insight of the early seasons disappeared. It was high time for Modern Family to end it’s Emmy sweep, but it has definitely been a good run.


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