Checking in on…”Modern Family”

(The second in a series in which I occasionally check in on series that I watch but don’t regularly write about…)

As with I did last week with “Community”, I’m using each Sunday to try and catch up on at least one show that I don’t cover on a weekly basis. The reasons for not doing so are usually purely practical: if I don’t have an assignment to write about it for one of the various websites that employ me, I generally don’t have the time to do so. At my height this past month, I was covering eight shows a week atop of my full-time job, plus doing a weekly podcast that took upwards of three hours to record, produce, and post. So writing about other shows sort of fell to the wayside.

In addition, as has been often discussed in recent talks about the state of TV criticism, there are certain shows that perhaps don’t need a weekly check-in. But what shows fall under that category certainly change depending on the perspective of each individual critic. So what I don’t cover isn’t an indication of a show’s validity overall so much as how often I feel I can bring something to the table. So I’m going to deal with two shows this week, one of which I probably would check in on more often had I more free time, and one that probably only needs three looks at a year. Let’s deal with the latter today and leave the former for later. Today’s check in?

“Modern Family.”

Those three times in which a show like “Modern Family” needs a check in? At the start of the season, halfway through, and at completion. That’s probably a fair amount for most shows that aren’t purely procedurals, to be honest, although there’s enough market value in providing a place to discuss each episode in a virtual water-cooler format. But a weekly recap of this show would have yielded some variation on “here’s what was funny, here’s what wasn’t”, the type of analysis that darn near broke Alan Sepinwall’s spirit while trying to cover each episode himself.

modern-family.jpg“Modern Family” succeeded initially by combining several aspects of other sitcoms in order to produce something that felt fresh yet simultaneously comfortable. But the one ingredient that made it stand out from the pack from the get go was its compassionate perspective on the characters in its world. So many sitcoms in the post-“The Office” television landscape used irony, callousness, or other devices that kept the audience at distance from the subjects on the screen. Sure, Jim/Pam functioned as the oasis of such attitudes on “The Office,” but with that show’s success came the need for comedies to be “edgy” in order to be critical and commercially viable.

“Modern Family” couldn’t be less edgy. Its exteriors are sanded so smoothly that the coefficient of friction approached zero. Sure, there are problems that this extended family has to deal with on a weekly basis, but there are never problems that threaten either the health or the familial ties of those involved. Above all, even if “Modern Family” shows people behaving badly, it never looked down upon those that did so, but instead offered up a way those characters to land softly on a narrative bed of roses by episode’s end. The talking heads segments spoke of Scranton, Pennsylvania, but the overall vibe felt more akin to the one in Mayberry, North Carolina. (Again: its lack of edge is generally a positive thing. But I think often people ascribe more subversive elements to the show than are actually there.)

Where “Modern Family” has failed in its second season comes from its embarrassment of actorly riches, the type of good problem that so many episodes this season revolve around. The sheer number of acting nominations and awards bestowed upon its cast after the first season reflected their quality but also has led to an awkward season in which the show hasn’t always known the best way to deploy them equally on a weekly basis. Every episode features a story involving the three families, and while having so many storylines offers up a chance for at least one of them to connect with the millions of viewers, it often means that one or two of those storylines usually fails to justify its existence in that particular week.

In the best episodes, such as “Manny Get Your Gun,” the three seemingly disparate storylines all merge into one by the half-hour’s end. That all three stories were individually funny helped a lot (especially the tale involving the flash mob in the mall), but that they had a unified sense of purpose beyond “we’re contractually obligated to show everyone every week” also helped. The show sometimes tries to unify all three storylines thematically (usually with overly helpful, on-the-nose talking head segments telling you exactly what that link was). And other times (i.e., most of the time), the show doesn’t bother to connect them at all, going for 6-8 minute segments of independent comedy featuring people that happen to be related.

What makes writing about this show difficult on a weekly basis gets to the nature of comedy itself: which of those 6-8 minute segments are actually funny lie in the eye of the beholder. In “Slow Down Your Neighbors,” everything involving Luke and his increasingly aggressive squirt-gun motivational techniques had me on the floor, but everything involving guests James Marsden and Jami Gertz fell flat. Poll five other people and it’s possible you’d get the 6 possible permutations of who found what funny. So other than arguing about something as objective as humor, staying out of the fray on a weekly basis works for me.

mf_s2ep13-1.jpgDrilling down to a character level, the potential in the show for surprise largely rests on the shoulders of its child actors, and for the most part, they have been highlights of the season to date. While the writers give Julie Bowen little else to do besides be a shrill control freak (a note that’s getting intensely monotonous) and Ed O’Neill to be a grumpy man that learns little by little how to get out of his own way, the four main children are not as set in stone. Part of this is a reflection of human nature: children are simply more malleable in that they haven’t figured out who they want to be yet. But it also suggests that the six adults have become set in stone within the world of the show, while the writers still delight in finding new shades for the children to play.

Rico Rodriguez as Manny has probably grown the least this season, but that’s more of a function of him being fully formed from the start and therefore had less need to change. Ariel Winter’s Alex has had a few moments, especially in which she’s forced to turn to her frenemy Haley for advice about boys. But Sarah Hyland (Haley) and Nolan Gould (Luke) have been my MVPs so far this season. It’s not quite an apt comparison, but in some ways I liken their breakouts to that of Kiernan Shipka over on “Mad Men.” Sure, neither character on “Modern Family” had to stare slack-jawed at “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” this season. (And thank God for that: seeing that on my television once a year was enough, thankee kindly.) But both have had plenty of scene-stealing moments, including the aforementioned water-gun action and a different type of waterworks: the “You called me Daddy” crying scene from “Manny Get Your Gun” is one of my five favorite…well, ANYTHING on television in the past year. And what made that scene was the breakdown of Haley’s too-cool-for-family attitude, a side that doesn’t exactly justify her often selfish behavior but gives it far more context than anything in Season 1 did.

But these have been rays of sunshine in a largely hit-or-miss season. All of the elements that made Season 1 are in place, but it’s increasingly evident that Season 1 didn’t even work as well as I remembered as I did my research for this piece. In some ways, the perfection that was the season-ending Hawaii arc gave a retroactive glow to what preceded it. But since the show CAN produce episodes as good as “Manny Get Your Gun,” it’s a shame when they don’t do so on a more consistent basis.

If I had to give two recommendations to try and jumpstart the series:

1) Stop feeling the need to include everyone every week. Or, if you need everyone to appear for contractual reasons, focus on one family and make the others serve that singular story. Less CAN be more.

2) Let the kids shine more. Just as “Glee” works better when it’s not focused on Worst Teacher of the Year Will Schuester, so too does “Modern Family” work better when the kids are commenting on the infantilized actions of their elders. The adults may not always be nice people, but they are always fundamentally good parents, and continually giving them the chance to prove that usually yields at least a decent episode.

Now that I’ve checked in on “Modern Family,” now it’s your turn. How has Season 2 played for you? Sound off below!

2 Comments

  1. pbcarl
    Posted March 1, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    When you write “it’s increasingly evident that Season 1 didn’t even work as well as I remembered,” I think you’re exactly right. I take your meaning a bit differently though, since I think that season 2 has been just as good as season 1. I’m laughing just as much and enjoying myself just as much.

    I do think that MF’s greatness was a bit overinflated in season 1, but it’s still a show that I really look forward to every week and one of the only ones that I watch even close to live.

  2. Posted March 8, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Honestly, Ryan, after reading your non-’Lost’ reviews for the better part of a year now, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that, while you and I generally agree on what makes a show great, we don’t agree at all on what makes a show good. That’s not a criticism of your own criticism; moreso, it is simply what I find from reading your reviews. However, the reason I read your reviews is because I think smart, critically-minded people can disagree vehemently; it’s what makes watching TV as art fun.

    With ‘Modern Family,’ I’ve come to absolutely adore the kids, as you have. However, my favorite continues to be Alex, who I think has the nerdy-girl-who-doesn’t-want-to-admit-to-wanting-to-fit-in-but-wants-to-fit-in down pat. Yet I don’t find Claire to be shrill, nor Ed O’Neill to be playing the grumpy old man. Maybe I’m alone in that, or maybe I just have too many friends who’re more or less exactly like Claire, or maybe it’s just that I see a lot of my dad in Jay… but any way I dice it, I can’t hate on the characters the way you and many, many other critics seem able to.

    The funny thing is, if I have one major criticism of the show, it’s that Cam and Mitchell often end up as gay-faced minstrels who seem written to show that gay couples have exactly the same problems as straight couples. That appears to me to be aimed at those in middle America who’re still kind of uncomfortable with the idea of gay folk living in their communities, but for those of us who’ve been around homosexuals most of our lives, we learned that lesson, like, two decades ago.

    I guess my opinion of ‘Modern Family’ rests on who its audience is. It’s geared towards the same folks who’ve embraced ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ and ‘Two and a Half Men,’ two horrifyingly bad shows that nonetheless sparked something with average Americans. ‘Modern Family’ is another that’s doing the same thing. Thank God it also has good actors and mostly excellent writing; otherwise, there would be little separating it from the shroud of ‘Raymond.’

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