Back in September, I randomly (confession, it was not random, I read everything the man writes) read Troy Patterson’s review of Modern Family and promptly watched the pilot on hulu. It was love at first stream. The show does not do anything revolutionary with form or content, but the thing is, the subject matter is so funny that it doesn’t have to. Families– particularly one’s that don’t have any real problems– are really funny to observe. The Pritchett’s– like most people who live on sitcoms– live in beautiful homes and don’t really have to worry about their jobs. Even when they act unkindly to each other, these characters are never spiteful in the way one might be spiteful if she was unemployed, sick, or raising a family alone. But in spite of their big houses, the Pritchett’s seem ‘just like us’ because they have some family baggage– Ed O’Neill, as Jay Pritchett, is divorced and has recently remarried a super young, super hot Colombian woman with an eleven-year-old son. The introduction of Gloria and Manny into the Pritchett clan is (as one would expect) bumpy, and creates lots of opportunities for laughs. Jay’s son, Mitchell, is, wait for it… gay! and he and his partner Cameron have just adopted a Vietnamese baby. Finally, Jay’s daughter Claire is a stay-at-home mom married to a pretty absurd man (Phil) who tries desperately to be the coolest dad his three kids have ever seen.
The kind of laughs generated on Modern Family are a far cry from what we saw in the 90s and the 2000s. The worlds inhabited by the characters on Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City are universes in which family members are rarely present. For the adult city-dweller, family visits are an obligatory stint one endures but does not necessarily enjoy. Remember when Elayne’s boyfriend got more excited about entertaining the Seinfeld’s than Jerry? Or the one and only time we met Miranda’s family on Sex and the City? In case you forgot, it’s when her mother dies. This is also a different take on the family than the one we saw in 80s sitcoms like Growing Pains and The Wonder Years. The characters on Modern Family are a lot less bitter about their relationships with their parents than Kevin Arnold or Mike Seaver. They’ve deliberately settled in the same town, and so their social lives inevitably revolve around family events, birthday parties, holiday dinners, summer cook-outs, etc. The show laughs at family, but in the end, the tone is much more sweet than sour.
For me, this point is perfectly illustrated in last weeks episode (watch on hulu here) ‘fifteen percent.’ In this episode, Manny (Gloria’s eleven year old son) has a first date with a girl he met in an online book club. As Manny says, “they both like vampire fiction and the romance of eternal life.” Unfortunately, when the girl arrives at the house for her lunch date, it becomes clear that there was some miscommunication. She assumed Manny was an adult and Manny assumed she was a kid. When we see situations like this portrayed in the news, they are always a matter of life and death. There is a sex-offender lurking in every chat room, and thus, parents should police their children’s behavior. On Modern Family, the situation, instead of being tragic or repulsive, is allowed to be funny. And it is funny… it’s funny that such a massive detail (a fifteen year age difference) was obscured by their mutual affinity for vampire fiction. It’s also funny (in a tragic way) that this woman, as Jane Austen might put it, has such limited prospects.
There’s something about the freshness of the mocumentary style that has rejuvenated the sitcom. Modern Family is a case and point.