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.

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