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Welcome back to our continuing series ranking the best comedies on the small screen (which sounds like a slight but is anything but) since 1994.
Last time, we talked about The Office and what a trailblazer it was for single camera comedy efforts as well as the mockumentary format. Today, we stick fairly close to the technical concepts that helped make The Office so great but certainly go in a different creative direction with number eight, which may well end up as the most decorated comedy of our lifetime.
NUMBER EIGHT: MODERN FAMILY (2009-Present, ABC)
True story. I was sitting in a movie theater watching one of the usually obnoxious pre-preview, pre-advertisement First Look reels and an ABC ad splashed across about three families who were all part of one larger family. The first thing I noticed was Ed O’Neill was involved, and, as a fan of his for many years, I was immediately at least semi-interested in what was going on with the show. It was set to premiere that fall in 2009. The teaser included a few minutes of unedited footage from the pilot episode and far more of it hit than missed, so it made the fall DVR list.
Five seasons later, Modern Family is the biggest comedy on all of television, and that’s not a subjective statement. ABC’s mega-hit has racked up five consecutive Best Comedy Emmys and a bundle of acting honors as well. It would be nothing without its cast, but it would also be nothing without its writing. It’s interesting because at some point over the past few years, it’s become a show that might have peaked. However, it’s also a show that most people I know still watch without fail every week and highly enjoy. Modern Family’s success has made it a target for people that despise the mainstream but again, the show has been solid, if not spectacular, pretty consistently since day one.
It starts at the top. Creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, who worked with one another on one of the other most celebrated comedies in television history, Frasier, had an idea. The two men told stories about their families; thought about those tales, and realized those amalgams could make for an intriguing sitcom. Enter Modern Family, the story of the extended and intertwined family of Jay Pritchett (O’Neill.) His daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and the two have three children. His son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler-Ferguson) is in a relationship with Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and the men adopt a Vietnamese girl. Jay himself is married to Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who brings her 14-year-old son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) from a previous marriage. The families all live in and around the Los Angeles area.
Just as with Frazier, Lloyd and Levitan, with the help of casting assistants, put together an all-star ensemble. Most impressively, in addition to the adults, the children and adolescents chosen all fit perfectly. One thing we’ve seen repeatedly in television is the way child actors can often bring a show down. Here, they enhanced the product and even as they’ve grown up, in many ways they still offer plenty to the proceedings. It wasn’t a show full of big stars. It is now.
It’s not a comedy without jokes, and the laughs in Modern Family are quick, they’re sharp, and they can literally come from anywhere at anytime. While, just as in the case of anything, some are predictable, many are not, including the short quips or sarcastic one-liners where a figurative record skips, usually with a few seconds of silence to process the humor. Without question, highlights include Mitchell’s comebacks to his oversensitive partner, Cameron, or Claire’s smarmy retorts or facial expressions to the camera in response to her husband’s attempts to be either intelligent or hip. Of course, when it’s just one character, it still works:
I am brave. Roller coasters? 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 clowns. Never shared that with the fam, so…shh. 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? (Phil Dunphy, S1E9)
This may sound odd, but give it some time and it should start to make sense. Either that or it’s going to be the most pretentious thing you’ll read today, provided you avoid literary criticism. Modern Family wouldn’t work without all its respective parts and the trio of families. At the same time, each family could be featured in their own show and all could absolutely succeed. They’re all good enough to stand alone, but luckily they don’t have to, because the sum is greater than the quotient, so to speak. At times, the show gets too busy and has too much going on, often when it tries to balance storylines equally between the families rather than accepting the truth that, usually, one or two stories should be the prime focus. However, because the audience has three options from which to choose, it’s hard to find an episode where something doesn’t connect.
As mentioned earlier, the show is done in mockumentary format, where all the characters speak directly to the camera and by proxy, the audience. In contrast to The Office, however, it was changed in its very early stages from a show where the actors acknowledged the cameras and the crew to being one where everybody talks to us directly. That said the dialogue and the style with which they’re presented are very reminiscent of The Office, and others in the genre, including Parks and Recreation.
That was hardly porn. It was a topless woman on a tractor. You know what they call that in Europe? A cereal commercial. (Phil Dunphy, S1E12)
Modern Family is careful, to a fault, to tie up its stories in every episode. The final minutes often feature one character executing a heartfelt monologue that shows emotional growth or a life lesson learned from the past half hour of laughs. It’s here that occasionally I find myself less than thrilled with the show, but in truth, with the exception of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and more niche works like Arrested Development and Flight of the Conchords, it’s just how comedy is done. It feels too cookie cutter at times, but it’s also designed to be a program about the family — for the family. The Goldbergs, another very good ABC comedy, similarly teaches and finds resolution every week. No question, it does become formulaic, but both shows do it exceedingly well on most occasions. It’s also why the show ends up at eight on this list and can’t go any higher, because we know the ending before it comes and that does take some of the sting out of the proceedings.
While this may not be the most opportune time to mention it, Modern Family has often been compared to and described as this generation’s version of The Cosby Show. That statement is presented without further comment, except to say that the saga of the Huxtables is one of the all-time greats and one of the unquestioned highlights in entertainment, going all the way back to the days of Tesla, Edison, and Sarnoff. If your show is ever mentioned in the same breath as Cosby, you’ve probably done something quite a bit further than right.
If you were to poll a large swath of the show’s fan base, you’d come back with several different answers for the question of favorite character. It’s an ensemble show with incredibly strong individual parts. Phil Dunphy and the way Burrell plays him is hilarious, but his priorities almost always seem to be in the right place and he’s constantly likable. He’s my choice, but again, on certain days it’s very easy to see almost any of the leads in that capacity.
News Reporter: How does your spouse feel about you coaching?
Cam: Oh this one, he’s my rock, he’s my Connie Britton.
Mitchell: Your Connie Britton?
Cam: Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights. (S6E7)
Modern Family has been a true breakout vehicle for Burrell, for Julie Bowen, certainly for Sofia Vergara, and of course for Ferguson, for Stonestreet, and the list just goes on an on. It’s a runaway success, with live viewers approaching 13 million in Seasons 3 and 4 and still drawing nearly 12 in addition to 4.5 through DVR. It hasn’t been afraid to tackle social issues, but does so with care and without being pedantic. It’s very difficult to root against Mitchell and Cam’s marriage, not because it’s beaten into the audience’s brain, but because we like those guys and we feel like we know those guys.
It’s in that last sentence that Modern Family achieves its true brilliance. With so many characters to keep track of on the program, none are left behind, even the children. Everyone gets a moment to shine and as a result, the audience learns their loves, their ambitions, and what makes them who they are. Without the attention to detail, Modern Family would be a bunch of clever jokes. With it, and this is the legacy of Modern Family…
We’re all Pritchetts. We’re all Dunphys. We’re all a part of this extended clan best described with one word–
Family. (Go back and re-read that last couple of statements and pretend it’s the voice of Ed O’Neill. It won’t sound as sappy.)
(Modern Family is in the middle of its sixth season on ABC and runs in syndication, most notably on the USA Network. All previous seasons are available on DVD.)
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9. The Office