The Unmaking of “Modern Family”?

We’ve been enjoying “Modern Family” this year.  It’s not a perfect show, but it has a good amount of laughs that leave you happily vaguely uncomfortable (you know, in that good way that happens when you laugh and feel kind of wrong doing so but can’t help), a rather odd sensation for a network comedy program.  We’ve had plenty of this on cable shows – hello Larry David! – but nothing like it since the end of “Arrested Development.”

[Quick Sidebar: Don’t get me wrong.  I have lots of uncomfortable moments watching network sitcoms.  But the discomfort is in the witnessing of god-awful writing and acting.  Sitting here right now I can’t think of 2 good network sitcoms, and I’m not sure that really there is even one good one.]

Now then, “Arrested Development” is probably the show that “Modern Family” is most compared to.  There seem to be two reasons for this – the focus on a single extended family, and the commitment to the comedy of outrageousness.  But “Modern Family” is not as good as “Arrested Development,” which set the bar exceedingly high for just how far out on the plank it would send its characters.  It had no shame – or better, its characters had no shame.  “Modern Family,” on the other hand, always returns to resolution by the end of the episode.  (By this, I mean, that by the end of each episode, we’ve resolve the problem of the episode.)  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as almost all network sitcoms do.  It just doesn’t make for great tv.  Enjoyable?  Sure.  Transformative or even riveting?  No, not really.

What does the show do well?  Although it’s stretched as thin as it can be in terms of representing different types of families – traditional one with three kids, gay couple with adopted Asian child, patriarch with a second and younger Latina wife and her child – it doesn’t get trapped in this stretching too far.  I like how, for the most part, it treats these different iterations of “family” quite naturally and doesn’t draw undue attention to its attempt at diversity.  There’s comedy with each one and playing with expectations for each of these families is pretty central to what the show does.

Ed O’Neill is excellent in the role of Jay, the family patriarch.  I’m tempted to go so far as to say that he is rather droll, and Sofia Vergara is quite good as the surprisingly sweet and thoughtful second – and much younger – wife, Gloria.  As Vergara plays her, Gloria goes beyond any stereotypes of the Latina bombshell, even while physically embodying one.  Gloria’s son, Manny, is hilarious and J.’s favorite on the show.  He gets big laughs for looking for love at a fairly early stage – apparently he’s an old soul.

Eric Stonestreet, playing Cameron, one half of the gay couple, comes close to playing things over the top but is incredibly likable, sympathetic, and engaging.  My favorite moment in the entire show was learning that he once played college football as an offensive lineman at a Big Ten university.  A brilliant use of backstory!  Finally, I would want to mention someone who is something of a bit player – Reid Ewing does an amazing job of playing Dylan, the good-looking, music-playing but doofy boyfriend of Haley.  The song he wrote for Haley was an immediate classic.  (I’d post it here but there seem to be some restrictions with it.  There’s a YouTube video that ABC made that serves as a “faux” video for the song, but it’s nothing like the shock of when Dylan played it for the first time on the show.)

My problem with the show is ultimately something inherent in the structure of the program.  For some reason, the creators of the show decided to impose a frame on the show that implies that some sort of documentary is being made about the family.  At various moments in the show, individual characters are shown sitting or standing and directly speaking into the camera as if they were speaking in response to something an interviewer has asked them, or as if they were clarifying the motives for their actions in the previous scene – as in “Big Brother” or other reality television series.

While “Arrested Development” used Ron Howard’s narration as a framing device, a tool likewise used in “The Wonder Years” and “How I Met Your Mother,” the direct-camera address is something different.  Many shows have done this over the years, most notably “Malcolm in the Middle,” another family-centered comedy, which serves as something of a related ancestor of “Modern Family.”  But what this format really invokes, in this case, is an actual documentary about a family – the famous, and perhaps infamous, “An American Family.”  This seminal 1970s PBS documentary distilled over 300 hours of footage into a twelve-episode program that provided an uncomfortably close portrait of a family as it collapsed and broke apart.  It ended with the couple separating and the wife filing for divorce.

With the title of “Modern Family” evoking this classic documentary of a family unravelling, along with the primary aesthetic choice of the breaking of the fourth wall, the show seems to want to put itself in alignment with a particular genre of family dysfunction and play it for laughs.  It’s not the first time that comedy shows have done this and it won’t be the last, but I think the decision to break the fourth wall – a technique I often enjoy – is not only distracting but aesthetically inappropriate and ill-conceived in this instance.

The problem with the way that the actors address the camera, albeit within the personae of their characters, is that this direct address removes us from the actual narrative of the show and takes us out of the action.  Ironically, although they are commenting on events on the show or on the theme of the show, ie., “Can people change?”, the technique doesn’t move us deeper into the narrative but instead helps us recognize how the show is constructed, scripted, framed to fit a theme and a particular storyline.  It helps us see the architecture of the writing, though not in a way that furthers the story itself.  Because the actors are speaking as their characters, and not as themselves, there is a “pretending,” a fiction, that what the audience is witness is something close to reality – like a documentary.  But the audience is well aware that “Modern Family” is a sitcom on ABC at Wednesdays at 9:00 pm.  It is not a documentary and we know that it isn’t.  Why are the producers trying to frame the show with this device that is usually meant to evoke “reality” or cinema verite?

The value of “Modern Family,” what makes it a good show, is the deep level of discomfort it creates in its viewers.  We laugh even while we cringe; we laugh because although we know we’d make better decisions than these characters do, it’s fascinating to see what might play out if you had to follow that small white lie to your wife with an elaborate hoax that ultimately was always doomed to fail.  Like watching an accident, it’s hard to turn away.  But the characters’ outlandishness and ridiculousness is undercut by the technique of direct address and the fiction of “reality” in the overall frame of the show.  It lessens the impact of what is at the heart of the comedy.  We don’t laugh because we feel that these characters are like us – God help us if they were!  But that’s the ultimate implication of the direct address, the pretending that these are regular people giving us a look at the inner workings of their lives.

In order for this show to ultimately succeed, it must abandon this technique, as it undermines the very thing the show does well.  And I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t stop trying to resolve everything by the time the 30 minutes are up.  Someone tell the producers to watch more “Sports Night” and to combine it with “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Of course, that might be asking too much of a network sitcom.

The Best Band, Part 2

The following is an expanded and edited version of a previous post.

As a follow-up to Reckoning, R.E.M. travelled to London to record the album that became Fables of the Reconstruction.  By all accounts, it seems to have been an absolutely miserable time.  They were working with a new producer and putting the album together in a classically brutal London winter, and all of them seemed to be struggling with homesickness.  What emerged from the recording sessions was an album with a deep melancholia that only led me – and many other college-age students – to embrace them all the more.

“Can’t Get There From Here” was an odd single to serve as the opening release for the album, and didn’t really garner them more publicity or fans than had embraced Reckoning.  It’s a bit of a weird song, coming on strong in its opening but only periodically truly taking off, though it fits very well into one of the album’s main themes – the South and the function of storytelling in that cultural milieu.  That theme is demarcated in the second song of the album, “Maps and Legends,” and is found in such songs as “Old Man Kensey” and “Kohoutek,” both of which emphasize setting and character in the lyrics more than Michael Stipe had done previously.

“Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” “Auctioneer,” and “Life and How to Live It” complement the brazenness of “Can’t Get There From Here,” with a harsher guitar than the band had previously shown coupled with an atmosphere of tension.  These songs seem to me to be why critics have not always embraced the album as a success.  On the other hand, “Driver 8,” the second single released from the album, carries over something of the sound of the two previous albums, with a strong sense of melody combined with lyrics that appear both inviting and distant at the same time.  As is appropriate for any train song, it has a driving beat that is somewhat unrelenting and that propels things forward.  It’s a natural follow-up to “So. Central Rain” from Reckoning, and it always makes me feel like rain. Much of the album does, actually, which we might account for by considering where the band recorded it, I suppose.  But I think there might be something more to it than that, something on one hand tied to the first song of the album – “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” and its visualization of what it means to be and feel earthbound and lacking any sense of transcendence.

The dominant mode of the album, ultimately, is a rather slow tempo, a mode which was present in the band’s first two albums, with “Perfect Circle,” “Talk About the Passion,” and “Camera” as exemplars not of ballads but of a slowed-down, impassioned beat that tends to match a deeply searching lyric.  I’ve suggested that Fables has a melancholic vibe to it, and that it makes one think of rain, and much of this has to do with the large number of slower songs that dominate as you proceed through the album.  In fact, I’d identify five of the album’s last seven songs as of this type, with three standouts in particular.

The first of these is “Green Grow the Rushes.”

“Green Grow the Rushes,” with its imagery of workers taken advantage of, registers the band’s frustration with making an album away from home, their desire for a different notion of labor, and a frustration with labor itself.  On one hand it’s easy to read this as an allegory of the work of putting together the album itself and the frustration with the recording and the labor that was going into a product that was not satisfying the band.  Ultimately, though, the song reads as something of a Marxist embrace of the noble laborer, a class notion that through the song becomes lyrical, resonant, and deeply haunting.  Here are the lyrics:

The wheelbarrow’s fallen/Look at my hands
They’ve found some surplus cheaper hands
Rubbing palms and pick and choose,
who will they choose? Here is the news.

Look at that building, look at this man/Halloed and whitewashed
Gone to find a cheaper hand/He’ll offer a pound, offer a pound.

Green grow the rushes go/Green grow the rushes go
Green grow the rushes go
The compass points the workers home

Pay for your freedom, find another gate
Guilt by associate, the rushes wilted a long time ago
Guilty as you go

Stay off that highway, word is it’s not so safe
The grasses that hide the greenback
The amber waves of gain again/The amber waves of gain

Green grow the rushes go/Green grow the rushes go
Green grow the rushes go
The compass points the workers home

One of the hallmarks of Fables is that you can start to hear Stipe better and better than on the previous two albums, and this is one of the songs that – though still a bit murky – we can hear him begin to have greater faith in the efficacy of his words.  Throughout the album he has been weaving stories, but here he relies on images to propel the song forward and it works as something closer to a poem, if not a painting.  He sings the lyrics with a real sense of passion, with Mike Mills matching that with an onrush of feeling in what he is singing just underneath Stipe, a harmony that kills throughout the whole song. The song comes across as a gentle but insistent call to reorient our thinking about class, about labor, about the nature of work.  It’s something of a call for revolt.

Next, consider “Good Advices,” which has one of my favorite lyrics ever: “I’d like it here if I could leave and see you from a long way away.”

As with “Green Grow the Rushes,” what I love about this song is the way that it doesn’t let up, or let the listener off the hook.  There is no extended instrumental section, and the bridge takes you right back to the verses.  The band is privileging the lyrics in these songs and it shouldn’t surprise us.  Stipe plays with language in the song, as he has in the past, but again his enunciation is much further than it was in past albums and his confidence in what he is writing and how he is singing is marked by the way that the vocals come further and further to the center of the recording (or the performance, in the above clip).

Finally, the last song of the album, “Wendell Gee,” a wonderfully wacky song that escapes characterization.  The song focuses, like many of the other songs on the album, on a particular individual and the story he has to tell.  Here are the lyrics:

That’s when Wendell Gee takes a tug
Upon the string that held the line of trees
Behind the house he lived in
He was reared to give respect
But somewhere down the line he chose
To whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows with me

He had a dream one night
That the tree had lost its middle
So he built a trunk of chicken wire
To try to hold it up
But the wire, the wire turned to lizard skin
And when he climbed inside
There wasn’t even time to say
Goodbye to Wendell Gee
So whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows with me

There wasn’t even time to say
Goodbye to Wendell Gee
So whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows with me
If the wind were colors
And if the air could speak
Then whistle as the wind blows
Whistle as the wind blows

Here is the band performing it live, acoustic, in a studio.  Stipe really lets his twang out in this version, and man the band looks young:

Most of the lyrics on the album are pretty dark and most of it feels like something you should be listening on a gray-sky day with a cigarette in one hand and a shotglass in the other.  But this song has a certain sweetness that is unmistakeable, even if opaque.  The sense of myth that pervades the story here carries to conclusion what Stipe set out in the second song of the album, “Maps and Legends.”  At the same time, though, the song clearly is in opposition to the sense of feeling earthbound that the band lays out in “feeling Gravity’s Pull.”  “Wendell Gee” is all about transcendence, all about what might happen once you “crawl inside.”  He finds it, and he makes us want to as well.  After the brutal cynicism of “Good Advices,” “Wendell Gee” sends us off with the sense that if we can just better attune ourselves to our surroundings, to nature, to the wind, we might be able to locate something that takes us out of ourselves into something larger and greater, something worthwhile.  Coupled with “Green Grow the Rushes,” this song, it seems to me, is one of the band’s first attempts to articulate a politics that asks us to look beyond ourselves and to engage with the world outside of us.  This politics is passionate – these songs are deeply impassioned – but perhaps more notably this politics is personal in the sense that it envisions politics on an individual and not societal level.  There is no preaching here, no bully pulpit speechifying of the type we would see with “Exhuming McCarthy” and “Welcome to the Occupation.”  It’s music that seduces us, of the type the band also produced in two songs on Life’s Rich Pageant, their next album – “Fall On Me” and “The Flowers of Guatemala.”

Fables is a complicated album, imperfect, moody, elusive of our grasp.  R.E.M. was firing on all cylinders in the mid-1980s.

The Best Band

I’m biased, in that I’m of a certain age.  For me it has to be REM, The Smiths, or The Cure.

I came “of age” in the 80s, and it was the age of cds.   I distinctly remember hearing my first albums on this new technology of compact disc.   Obviously the sound was great.  A radically different experience from 8-tracks and a whole new game from the tapes that so many of us had relied on.  (For those too young to know, we used to tape radio stations for new songs and hope to catch new groovy songs.  Tape.  Not good quality.)  Of greater importance to me, though, was that the music was different.  Tears for Fears.  U2.  All sorts of Brit imports with interesting hair.

One band stood out to me and that was REM, perhaps because they were the American band, the sole American Band that in 1983-86 seemed to actually matter, at least to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I listened to Michael Jackson just like everyone else did, and Phil Collins, and I had grooved on the Gap Band and obviously Prince.  I knew rap was on the way and loved Run-DMC as much as anyone.  But there was something about this band from down South.

REM seemed real and authentic.  They sang of a world I knew nothing about – places, experiences, a way of life that was totally foreign to me.  And while I liked the Brit thing going on – for instance, who did not love Elvis Costello from 1978-1984??? – it was great to hear this thing going on in American music that wasn’t dictated by the New York scene but was still one-of-a-kind.  Digging on The Cure was a lot of fun at college and that Robert Smth had not only a look but a sound of his own.  I was and remain a fan of The Smiths to as much a degree as is possible.  But REM.  Murmur is a great album, and I listen to it often.  But in my book, there has never been a band on fire like REM was in the making of Reckoning.

Here, live, is the track that sets the stage:

I love Stipe’s hair, the guitars, the everything in this clip.  I love “Harborcoat.”  The jangly guitar against the steady drum, the vivacity, the playfulness, the harmonies, the playing with language.  And that’s about the weakest track on the album.  Please see other songs.  I have yet to see something that betters this album in the last 25 years.  It’s rock and roll at its finest – a band at its apex right here.  At the time I was digging other bands, and I’ve loved others since…but this captures the band at its best. Lyrically, the band did some fascinating things in this album and followed them with the stunning Fables of the Reconstruction and Life’s Rich Pageant, which only solidified their place at the top lyrically but especially ideologically and musically.

The best song, though, then and now, continues to be “Letter Never Sent.”  If ever a song takes me back to a time it is this one: “If I’m moving too fast, here is my new address.”

This song equals the mid-80s to me, and part of that is because it’s part of an imperfect album that works so very well as an album.  There’s nothing I would change about Reckoning, and nothing of any of their first three albums, truth be told.  I know I’m partial, but this is still the best band in the world to me for what they were able to do over a span of those three albums from about 1983-1987 – capture perfectly a time and place like no other band has in my lifetime.  The Beatles and Stones?  Probably.  But REM in the mid-80s were independent in a way that didn’t exist in music back then and doesn’t now.  They were the best band of that decade and the best until Kurt Cobain started doing his thing.  They forced you to deal with what they were doing.  They were the best band in the world.