5 Thoughts On: ABC’s Modern Family

January 17, 2010
By | 5 Comments
5 Thoughts:
1:  It’s an entirely pleasant and watchable show, although I think that’s at least 50% Ed O’Neil.
2:  There is something just thoroughly Disney about the entire production, particularly in the way that it so meticulously nuzzles up to Edge without actually becoming Edgy.  It seems like every aspect of the program is timed to be exactly five years behind the cultural curve- fresh enough that the mainstream still finds its ideas vaguely new, but also sufficiently rehearsed elsewhere (cable, movies etc.) to avoid pressing any real hot buttons.
3:  Exhibit A: Mitchell and Cameron, a gay couple whose presence within the larger family structure has been normalized in a fashion not yet entirely common in American popular culture.  Just the same, it’s rare to get a scene in which their gayness is not remarked upon and played for either laughs or sighs.  Five to ten years ago this may have pushed the envelope ever so slightly, potentially turning off a larger segment of the viewing population.  Now it has just a vague effervescence of hipness.  A theme park simulcrum of queer relationships seen of cable tv and in independent cinema.
4:  Exhibit B:  The single-camera, mockumentary format.  If you’re accustomed to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, there’s definitely something different and potentially exciting about the somewhat looser, slightly more improvised feel of Modern Family.  Of course you’ve almost certainly been primed with at least a little bit of The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Waiting for Guffman etc.  In comparison to those examples of the genre, Modern Family feels restrained and the apparent improvisations seem disappointingly well-crafted.  It’s as though other programs have blazed ahead, clearing enough periphery brush to set up camp a few miles out from the Traditional Sitcom, but still shielded safely away from the wilderness of New.
5:  Is anyone’s favorite family on the show not Jay, Gloria and Manny?  I almost think it would serve the program as a whole better if I liked them less, so as the other two didn’t seem so pedestrian in comparison.

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5 Responses to “ 5 Thoughts On: ABC’s Modern Family

  1. Myles McNutt on January 17, 2010 at 5:10 PM

    There’s been a lot of great observations about this show from a critical perspective (I’m particularly fond of David J. Loehr’s take on the show here), but I definitely think that the show is one of those series where pleasantness tends to be a dominant factor in how viewers respond to it. When I write a negative review, I get shocked responses of how I couldn’t have laughed at that episode, which requires me to emphasize that I did laugh, just not enough to overcome the sense that the show is falling into some rather monotonous patterns.

    What was interesting coming out of Winter TCA was the idea that the mockumentary format is an entirely stylistic choice: there are no “cameras” in the houses, and there is no documentary being made. Essentially, they wanted to be able to do “talking heads” with the various characters, but they don’t want to be beholden to that structure in any other way. I think that format has certain expectations that, as you point out, are often at odds with the predictability of its actual narrative structure, so it’s created an odd disconnect for those of us who are used to the shows/films you mention.

    However, the show’s success indicates that a lot of people watching this show find that structure appealing (and they could well be seeing it for the first time), in the same way that for many (who haven’t seen the cable/independent representations you mention) the presentation of Cameron and Mitchell as “just another family” with only small humorous investigations of their homosexuality could be a revelation. The show is unquestionably a slick packaging of a grab bag of successful comic elements, but I wonder if that doesn’t position the show as a bridge between the “hip” sitcoms we tend the champion and the simpler sitcoms we tend to malign.

    And while I might desire the show to be more hip on occasion, and resist the saccharine voiceover endings, I kind of feel like the television universe is perhaps better off with a sitcom that mediates between The Office and Two and a Half Men.

  2. Mary Beltran on January 18, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    Interesting post, Matt. I agree with you, on the show’s intriguing, edgy-lite feel and aesthetic, particularly in terms of how the gay couple and mixed white-Latino family unit are represented. Jay, Gloria, and Manny (my favorites, too) – I suppose they’re a pretty heady fantasy, as I consider them further. Gloria and Manny are colorful, fun, and self-confident, and seem removed from the class disparities that Latinos typically face in the U.S., and Jay’s love of them only brings the positives into higher relief. A model postracial family, and funny to boot. I wonder if they and the two dad-family would be able to be a part of the diegesis without the more traditional nuclear family meant to be the central POV (even if that POV has now been positioned off to the side), however? Perhaps documentary (or mockumentary)-style camera work also has the effect of positioning viewers as anthropologists watching lifestyles that we presumably do not live ourselves.

    • Myles McNutt on January 18, 2010 at 5:47 PM

      Love your final point, Mary. I agree the show makes that presumption, and I think that they’ve done some work in an effort to bridge the gap, so to speak. Jay, Gloria and Manny may be a postracial family, but most of their interaction takes the form of the quite common stepparent dynamic (which the audience may well be able to relate with) while Cameron and Mitchell’s struggles with being new parents are just as common amongst heterosexual partnerships. While the “Modern” half of the show’s title presents unique dynamics that are not common amongst the viewing audience, the “Family” part of the show runs fairly consistently throughout the three stories, and potentially reconciles any sense of disconnection that audience members might experience.

  3. Mary Beltran on January 18, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    Just to add: I don’t mean to imply that it’s strange to represent these or other Latino characters as middle class. My point is that Gloria and Manny seem to be presented as completely removed from U.S. Latino (particularly Mexican American) experience, and that this allows the characters to be perhaps more easily embraced by a broad American public.

  4. Amanda on February 24, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    I just gotta say that Cameron/Mitchell/Lily are my favorite family in Modern Family! I love the dynamic between themselves Cameron and Mitchell have. It’s like Mitchell wants to be a typical straight family and Cameron pushes them into being modern.