Television is a vast wasteland, according to Newton Minow.

Modern families are all alike.

Posted: 08 January 2010 | posted by David J. Loehr |


It's time. Critics—many of whom I normally agree with up one side and down the other—love this show. Heck, after only two months, the Hollywood Reporter prematurely included it in their list of the ten best shows of the last decade over series like Arrested Development and The Wire.

I've given it eleven episodes, if only to see what all the fuss was about, and surely that's a fair sampling.

Thoughts on Modern Family after the jump.

For those who don't know, Modern Family is about, well, a modern family. Ed O'Neill plays Jay, the patriarch with a new young Colombian wife and stepson. Then there's Claire and Phil--she's Jay's daughter--and their three children. Finally, there's Cameron--Jay's son--and Mitchell, Cam's life partner, who've just adopted a baby from Vietnam. In the words of the ABC Medianet, "Shot from the perspective of an unseen documentary filmmaker, this comedy takes a modern look at the complications that come with being a family in 2009."

The pilot was cleverly constructed so that we weren't supposed to know that these three families were all really part of one extended family. Smart idea, one that would do an actual reality show proud. Unfortunately, the ABC promotional department went and gave up the ghost before it aired.

In the weeks before it aired, I don't know how many times I read that this was the best pilot anyone had seen in years, maybe on a par with Arrested Development Considering the cast and crew, it was one of the only new shows I actively looked forward to watching.

And then it aired.

I'll be honest. This show confounds me. It's well made, the cast is good across the board, the pedigree of the writing staff is mostly impeccable and it's won near universal praise. And yet, I haven't laughed or smiled once in eleven episodes. I've continued to watch long beyond the point when I'd normally give up on a show precisely because I'm trying to figure it why it doesn't work for me.

It started with the pilor. One subplot was painful to watch. Phil's son, Luke, shoots his sister with a BB gun, and so, in true "punishment fits the crime" mode, Phil decides to do the same to the boy to show him how it feels. This leads to a scene where the family tries to coordinate their schedules with the calendar to find the right time for the shooting. And then, in the end, in the moment, Phil decides not to fire, because Luke's fear of the shooting was enough. Alas, being in the idiot-manchild mold of Michael Scott, Phil slips and shoots the boy anyway, thus proving Chekhov's rule about toy guns. Not only that, he also shoots his daughter's new boyfriend and then himself. Of course. Comedy rule of threes, I suppose. (Also by Chekhov.)

Even by sitcom standards, what part of that subplot was recognizable human behavior? Claire, as the presumably sensible mother, should have stopped things right off the bat. And who didn't see the end coming a mile away? They establish Phil as bumbling throughout the episode, and then, presented with a gun, there really was no other possible outcome.

The other subplots in the episode--Cam and Mitchell bring their baby home from Vietnam to introduce to the family, and Jay is mistaken for his new wife Gloria's father because of their age difference--were fine, nothing special one way or the other. There was a touch of stereotype to each, whether Latina or homosexual, but at least there were attempts to play with those stereotypes and subvert them.

Because of the structure of the episode, we only have a few minutes to realize they're one big family, and for Jay to go on about how, if Cam and Mitchell want to adopt something, they should adopt a dog—oh, look, he's intolerant--before they reveal their new baby. This is immediately followed by a heartwarming "here's the lesson" voiceover by Jay. The pacing is odd, there's little set-up for the whiplash back and forth, but Ed O'Neill sells it well. The casting makes the narrative shorthand plausible, but presumably, they plotted and wrote it long before they cast it.

Every inch of the script is polished and buffed, every line punched up, every beat right on cue. As the season has gone on, I've noticed more and more critics pointing this out, that if the show has a flaw, it's that the writing sounds less like reality and more like well-honed writing.

You don't need to remind me that Frasier wasn't a paragon of realism. But it was never presented as such. Extraordinary things happened in various episodes, the characters were wittier than mere mortals in similar situations, and yet, the show worked. The characters were grounded, they had clear connections and reasons for being, they combined in different and entertaining ways. It was a situation and style of show that played to these writers' strengths. And that's where Modern Family falls apart for me.

Goodness knows I have a healthy respect for Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan's work on Frasier and Just Shoot Me. (Both shows suffered later from extensive turnover in writing staff, but that's part and parcel of being a long-running show.) They know how to craft a punchline, broad or subtle. Even in their failed series--and there's a decent list of those--there were bright spots in the writing.

And I certainly enjoy both series and films done in this mockumentary style. The Office which has its ups and downs for me, and Parks and Recreation are just two sterling examples of how to do this right. (I know that Jace at Televisionary is smiling right now, knowing how I felt about the first season of P&R.)

I think the disconnect for me is in the combination of these two elements--the very polished sitcom writing and the shaggy psuedo-real shooting style. In this show, they do not mesh at all.

The documentary angle of the show simply does not work. It is not organic to the situation, it is not remarked upon unless it's convenient to the moment, it is not well-thought out. The documentary cameras just happen to catch all the information/exposition they need, whether cameras would be in the situation or not. They must be some talented, well nigh invisible cameramen to be able to capture some of the scenes they've shown us.

More to the point, these people only act as if they're in a documentary when they're in the so-called "talking head" or confessional scenes. Often, these appear to be shot in one long session and then broken up to fill in gaps within the story, which lead to odd questions of "why doesn't he know X detail, if he's retelling this to us after the fact?" He or she may be wearing the same outfit, in the same pose, but suddenly they're acting and reacting to story details from later in the plot. But, with rare exceptions, they don't seem to be aware of the documentary in their everyday lives, and they don't seem to realize that the things they say on camera in these confessionals will be seen by any of their family or friends.

That's the big difference between Modern Family and the NBC mockumentary shows. Greg Daniels and his crews have done a wonderful job not only in designing the worlds of The Office and Parks and Recreation, but in thinking through how an actual documentary of these stories would be made and edited together.

In Modern Family, those confessional scenes are a crutch for lazy writing. They're almost all "tell, don't show," which breaks the first rule of writing. They're as easy as Family Guy and their scattershot cutaway gags—you can see them coming, you can almost set your watch by them. They're not organic to either the reality of the situation or of the purported documentary.

In Office and particularly Parks, the talking head scenes often seem offhand, caught in the moment, on the spot. It's rare for them to jar you out of the reality of the show. (Usually, when that happens, it's Michael Scott tilting into cartoon stupidity. But that's one reason why, as much as I like The Office at times, it wouldn't make a list of my top ten shows of the '00s. Which I supposes Myles is going to want me to write next…)

With both of Daniels' shows, there is a clear awareness of the documentary crew, there is an acceptance of their presence. This allows Nick Offerman to steal a scene from the background with the merest flick of an eyebrow. And there is a sense of distance when needed—moments when no cameraman would plausibly be in the room are handled deftly, often as exposition through dumb show as with Jim and Pam discovering her pregnancy several rooms away from the camera, in silence. The confessional scenes then elaborate and enhance the story as opposed to serving as an obvious punchline. The writing and directing of both series is keenly aware of the documentary structure and how best to use it.

Compare that to Arrested Development, which was shot and designed in a similar style, but is not in itself a mockumentary. The omniscent narrator is used to propel the story, to tie things together and is, at times, an unreliable narrator. But at no time are we told that this is a documentary or even reality. It could simply be a story. The show understood its style and stayed consistent with how it presented the characters and stories.

Another problem I had with the pilot and the series in general is that I don't understand why any of these families are together. Jay has a younger Latin wife because they want to tell jokes about the age and ethnic differences. Cam and Mitchell adopt a baby so they can tell jokes about two daddies. Claire married Phil because he's a romantic doofus, I suppose, they've told us that much. Beyond that, these people are connected because the writers want them to be.

This is a problem when you have episodes like the most recent, which has been described as "three stories taken down from the board at random." The three branches of the family don't really interact in this episode. But then the question is, why would a documentary crew want to follow them? If the stories don't connect in some way—either thematically or directly—then are we watching random sketches? Short stories? An anthology series about people who are supposedly related? Why are these stories placed together in this twenty-two minute period? Because the writers had three stories and twenty-two minutes.

The closest the show has come to getting a smile from me was with the episode where the various families connected in different ways, ie Jay and Gloria's son Manny visiting Phil and Claire's to spend time with their son Luke, but instead connecting with his "sister" Claire and, at times, being the more mature person in their conversations. Clever twist, even if the actual writing was again overpolished and obvious. Each combination of characters in that episode was surprising—and that's what the show needs, more spontaneity and more surprise. At the very least, there needs to be some kind of connection, some reason for us—and the filmmakers—to follow these people.

That doesn't mean the entire family has to get together by the end of every episode. But with everyone in such close proximity, and with a natural reason to interact, there's no reason why they can't drift in and out of each others' worlds more regularly or more naturally. They've built in all kinds of excuses for these characters to be together in various configurations, but they haven't taken advantage of them. If I had family around when I had a baby, I'd be calling on them and spending time with them regularly, especially if they had experience with children. That's just one example. There don't have to be big events or parties or get-togethers, and the more often they do that, the more tired it seems. Considering how many times they've gone to that well in eleven episodes, I'm not holding out much hope.

Arrested Development also had a sprawling family with even less reason to spend time together. But every interaction, every random combination of characters was different and often laugh out loud funny. The show stayed loose and light on its feet, and at every turn, it surprised the viewer. Or viewers. (I think it had viewers.)

It was interesting earlier in the season to watch as fans of Modern Family and Community started acting like the Jets and Sharks all over the interwebs. If you liked one, the other had to go down. I wasn't in either camp, but I will say this: as the season's worn on, Community has evolved from a snarky, amusing pilot to a show with real warmth and, well, community, while Modern Family has maintained its sleek, well-made, well-worn engine without changing or developing. The problems I had with the pilot have been repeated and magnified with each episode.

And still I watch.

The cast is charming and clearly having a good time working together. Ty Burrell does a good job with what he's given, but he can't help but come off as a faux Steve Carell. The tone of his character veers wildly between earnest and goofy, with less of the nuance of Michael Scott at his best. But again, that's the writing. Eric Stonestreet fares better, but his character's a little more original. Rico Rodriguez is absolutely winning as Manny. And Ed O'Neill looks like he's having the time of his life.

They also let the guest cast shine. Benjamin Bratt in particular gave an interesting performance in this most recent episode. But even there, his character—Gloria's Colombian ex-husband—was inconsistent with what we'd been told up till now; Bratt's version was, frankly, more interesting than what I'd been expecting from previous episodes' exposition, but that's beside the point.

In the end, it all comes down to the writing.

Several weeks ago, the promos for the episode Fizbo looked promising. Again, the interwebs were filled with word of how this was a particularly good episode.

Fizbo began with the dreaded in-media-res opening of someone at the hospital as the family converges. We're not supposed to know who's been hurt, of course. The episode flashes back to set up another big get-together, Luke's birthday party. Plans escalate to absurd degrees, but the instant Claire sets up her little crafting station with beads, the first thought in my head was, "Oh. Luke's going to slip and fall on beads and wind up at the hospital." It's innocuous and "lame" compared to the other, dangerous activities at the party, so it has to be the cause, and it has to be Luke because that would be poetic. And it would turn out to be his best birthday party ever.

We then get moments of Cameron as Fizbo the clown—with, as Alan Sepinwall pointed out, the "marvelous assembly of words that is 'weird gay clown uncle.'"—and the scorpion and the archery, Phil's fear of clowns and Gloria in the bouncy castle, intercut with flashes of more family members showing up at the hospital and thus not the mysterious patient. Finally, all hell breaks loose, and what happens? In the chaos, Luke slips and falls on beads and winds up at the hospital. And yes, it was his best birthday party ever.

Stonestreet was lovely as Fizbo, and again, I appreciated that they were tweaking stereotypes, this time adding clowns into the mix. Still, I sat deadpan the entire time. I suppose the marvelous assembly of words amused me, but it's almost funnier in Sepinwall's description than it was in practice, if that makes sense.

Frasier proved that Lloyd and Levitan know farce, which is very specific and different from comedy. Fawlty Towers is farce. Jeeves and Wooster, 'Allo, 'Allo, specific episodes of Frasier—the back-to-back fifth season wonders of The Ski Lodge by farceur extraordinaire Joe Keenan and the Cowardian Room Service by Ken Levine and David Isaacs—or the Woody's Wedding episode of Cheers (written by the great David Lloyd), these are farce. Fizbo skates into farce territory, with hidden secrets, a ridiculous chain of events and the climax where every element of the plot smashes together. But it never goes beyond its mechanics, it doesn't stick the landing. It stays obvious throughout, right up to another heartwarming ending.

Look, there's nothing wrong with a standard-issue, well-made sitcom. Modern Family is better than a fair number of sitcoms on the air right now. Maybe without the hyperventilatory praise, I would've enjoyed it more. After sticking with it through these eleven episodes, though, I think I'd have come to the same conclusion.

If you enjoy the show, by all means, keep watching. As for me and ABC's Wednesday night lineup, I'll stick with The Middle. It's not reinventing the wheel either, but it's evolved nicely since the pilot. The writing is clever, the situations recognizable, the characters human, aside from Brooke Shields. Stories zig when you expect them to zag, with a sense of humor more in line with Arrested Development and Better Off Ted. It even manages to be heartwarming without being obvious or saccharine about it.

More to the point, it's done what only Parks and Recreation, Community and 30 Rock have this season.

It's made me laugh out loud.

5 comments:

  1. Al said...
  2. You are confused

  3. Jon88 said...
  4. Thank you for that. I've been trying to figure out what's bothering me about MF, and you've done all the heavy lifting for me.

  5. Hereiswhatisay said...
  6. You "haven't laughed or smiled once in eleven episodes"???!!! Clearly, you are the problem. Seriously, you must be all up in your head thinking too much and looking for things to write about. Try relaxing and opening up your head, heart and funny bone. Modern Family is a rare gem. It's fresh and it's brilliant! There hasn't been one episode that I didn't laugh out loud at least once and I don't laugh at just anything. Anyway, don't fight it... your loss. Just know there are more people out here that disagree with you than agree with you.

  7. Nikki said...
  8. WOW. You haven't smiled or laughed in the past eleven episodes? That's awful, and quite frankly your loss. I don't like most television nowadays, (especially with shows like my most hated Family Guy and South Park winning unimaginable praise), but I find this one to be fresh.
    While I agree the writing is obviously "polished", I think the actors deliver it one hundred-percent. What you seem to be doing, in my opinion, is looking for every last flaw. You could just not find it funny, but I'm leaning more towards my idea.
    The only part of the show I don't like, is (as you said) Phil. They make him seem dubious and unaware of...anything. The basic stereotypical father who tries to be cool, but only succeeds in making himself look stupid. But, I have noticed that since the pilot, they've toned down on his stupid personality and tried to make him more lovable than anything else.
    Your opinion is your opinion, and unlike most people, you have your facts to back it up with. Kudos. :)

  9. che said...
  10. Almost amused at the condescending comments if they weren't so sad.

    I think you did a great job pinpointing out what is off with Modern Family. It is good for a chuckle but it is far from a rare gem. It is the deliberateness that really hurts the show; it seems like a project that had the aim of picking the good things that worked in their far superior predecessors (Arrested Development, The Office season 2) and tweaking it to suit what the public wants to watch ie there is an almost desperate attempt to make every character likable and have a joyous family resolution 5 minutes from the end of the episode. Sometimes it works but other times it feels very forced and unnecessary.

    It is funny but definitely not groundbreaking. You can sense that the creators are confined to a certain boundary (imposed by ABC/Disney?) that prevents them from daring to create something fresh and innovative like what Arrested Development did. At least the other 2 new comedies, Community and Parks and Recreation, are experimenting to create their own unique tone.