Thanks to EW.com and the ABC Network, I was lucky enough to be invited to watch a sneak preview of the new television show, Modern Family, which makes its official TV debut on Wednesday, September 23, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central). It seems to me that situation comedies are a dying breed, but Modern Family brings the laughs with a talented cast and some good writing. Whether or not it’s the answer to the modern sitcom’s woes depends on whether the American public tunes in this fall. It’s definitely worth a look.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Read no further if you want to be completely surprised by the show when you watch it this autumn. If, on the other hand, you want to learn some more details about the first episode, keep reading.
Modern Family is a fictional sitcom following three families “reality show” style. This means some shaky-cam shots and some “talk-to-the-camera” interviews with the characters interspersed between the segments, which annoyed me at first, but quickly ceased to bother me once the story and characters usurped my attention. The reality show premise is probably unnecessary and distracting, but it will be interesting to see where they go with it. The show most likely could work without the gimmick, unless future episodes build on it.
The three families range from the typical suburban nuclear family (Mom, Pop, three kids, living in a big house), to the gay couple adopting a Vietnamese baby, to a newlywed couple (older man married to a young, attractive woman who has an 8-year-old son). We follow each family through some standard comic scenarios.
The suburban family plotline at first seems the weakest and most mundane, because we’ve seen most of it before in countless other sitcoms, such as jokes about the oldest daughter causing her parents to worry because of the revealing outfit she’s wearing and the senior boy she’s dating. It gets better, relying a lot on physical humor and pratfalls, most of which work but some occasionally fall flat (pun intended). The most fun lies with the dad who does his best to try to be hip and cool for the cameras, for his family, and for the young man dating his daughter as he tries to intimidate him, only to come across as hilariously goofy. One of the winning jokes was hearing him use and misuse online vernacular language and text-messaging abbreviations, like “WTF” or “Watch The Face!” That joke gave me a hearty chuckle.
The older man, played nicely by veteran actor Ed O’Neill, tries to keep up with his firecracker sexpot Colombian wife. Countless age jokes are thrown around, which grow old pretty fast (pun again intended). He watches his stepson play soccer and chase an older girl of his own (a 16-year-old whom he pursues in a mall, poem in hand, ready to seduce her as only a precocious 11-year-old can). Despite the May-October romance clichés, the family has some nice chemistry together.
The gay couple storyline seemed like it was delving into stereotypical territory early on, but quickly proved to be one of the better aspects of the show. The plot wonderfully twists and enters heartwarming territory when it’s revealed that the three families are connected: the older man is the father of the suburban wife and one of the gay men. All three families come together to welcome Lilly, the adopted baby. (The moment she is brought out for everyone to see, in over-dramatic fashion with Lion King music blasting, was the laugh-out-loud moment of the episode.)
The excellent cast is the glue that holds this show together, making me overlook the under-developed “reality show” premise and some sporadic uninspired writing. Ed O’Neill (best known from Married with Children), as the older Jay, is solid as always. Sofia Vergara plays his beautiful but sassy young bride, Gloria, and Rico Rodriguez is wonderful as Gloria’s charming son, Manny.
Eric Stonestreet as Cameron really shines during a number of great moments throughout the episode, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays his partner Mitchell well during both the funny and serious scenes.
The suburban family is brought to life competently by Julie Bowen as the mom, Claire; Sarah Hyland as the older daughter, Haley; Nolan Gould as her brother, Luke; and Ariel Winter as their sister, Alex. The character that often steals the show, however, is the father, Phil, acted with spot-on comic timing by Ty Burrell.
Modern Family is created by Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me and last season’s short-lived Kelsey Grammer vehicle Back to You) and Christopher Lloyd (Frasier and the even shorter-lived Pamela Anderson comedy Stacked).
It seems tough to make sitcoms that connect with audiences nowadays. Maybe it’s because audiences have seen it all before. When one of the kids injures a sibling with an air-pistol, the punch line “Little bitch shot me” doesn’t resonate or even have the shock humor that the writers likely intended (unlike when I heard the word “bitch” used for the first time on broadcast television during the final episode of M*A*S*H). Television comedies today need to try harder and cover new ground, or cover the old ground in fresh new ways. We’ll see if Modern Family can do that or whether modern sensibilities hinder its noble intentions.
A voice-over line by one of the characters seems to neatly sum up the theme the show is striving to convey: “We’re from different worlds, yet we somehow fit together.” The first episode managed to fit it all together nicely. Time will tell if Modern Family manages to successfully bring new laughs to today’s TV audience for the long run or whether it will just fade away as so many modern sitcoms seem to do.