May 24, 2010

Why Modern Family Works So Well

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Modern Family (Opening Screen)
CBS / Twentieth Century Fox

The first season of ABC’s Modern Family was successful for so many reasons.

But perhaps the fundamental reason is the underlying philosophy of the show, which is carefully inoffensive and thoroughly populist. The contradictory title of the show reminds us of this reality. It’s a progressive (modern) sitcom about conservative stuff (viz., family). It’s the show for fans of both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.

Well, actually, I would argue Modern Family leans more to the right than the left, at least implicitly.

After all, the focal point of the show is the waspy Dunphy family – Phil and Claire and their three biological children: Haley, Alex, and Luke.

Sure, the show features a homosexual couple. On closer inspection though, just how gay are Cam and Mitchell? Not gay at all. The show portrays them as bros more than lovers. More like effeminate eunuchs than raging homosexuals. Two prime examples of this come immediately to mind. (1) In the “Airport” episode: When Cam and Mitchell are reunited, they hug; when Phil and Claire are reunited, they kiss.

(2) Plots don’t really focus on Cam and Mitchell per se. Rather, they focus on Cam and Mitchell and their adopted daughter, Lily. That is to say, they focus on Cam and Mitchell as heterosexuals, as parents.

(Remember the Valentine’s Day episode? What did Cam and Mitchell do? They babysat while the heterosexuals couples went out.)

Then there’s Jay and Gloria. Jay is old and rich. Gloria is relatively young and Colombian (read: poor). At first glance, especially considering it’s a second marriage, the relationship seems “modern” and by modern I mean it transgresses traditional, Christian family values.

- These kinds of relationships are in reality at least the byproduct of an unholy cocktail of lust and avarice. Except not in Modern Family. Jay and Gloria are married because they are deeply, madly in love. They’re glorified as the ideal couple, the exception to the rule. Their relationship is absurdly romantic, not modern.

Modern Family then works because it gives us something new in very familiar terms: a progressive façade with a conservative heart. Homosexuality is castrated. Brash greed and lust are sanctified. All the while, the traditional family unit is at the forefront.

Aside from all this political hoopla, the writing on Modern Family is top-notch: funny, multivalent, and true to life. Here’s Claire explaining the nature of their family “vacation”:

Sweet pea, I am a mom traveling with kids. This is not a vacation. It’s a business trip.

And here’s Phil explaining to Claire his unusual parenting methods:

In nature fathers are known to eat their young. Is it because they are delicious? No. It’s because they want to give their female: bear, giraffe, what have you – the honeymoon they never had. Just to be clear I’m not condoning eating your kids, but I sure as heck don’t mind if giraffes do it.

It’s nonsensical and that’s what part of what makes it comical, but the facial expressions make it all the more hysterical, adding a whole new layer of enjoyment:

Phil’s gesture seems to say – “Hey honey, isn’t my complex knowledge of the animal kingdom and parenting amazing?” Whereas Claire’s face betrays amused bewilderment bordering on rage. This ensemble of gestures runs throughout the show and it is just as funny if not more so than the lines.

Modern Family also shines at hitting the right sentimental chords, invoking pathos and nostalgia without being too cheesy:

Everything works with Modern Family: the philosophy, the writing, the casting; all this and more made its first 24 episodes some of the best television of 2009 and 2010. TC mark

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