The 1950s had “Leave it to Beaver.” Today, it’s all about “Modern Family.”
Times - and cultural mores - change, and television responded last year with the Emmy Award-winning comedy from the minds behind “Just Shoot Me” and “Frasier.”
“Modern Family: The Complete First Season,” just released on DVD and Blu-ray, isn’t the laugh riot the press clippings declare. But it’s endlessly smart and satisfying with an ensemble cast that makes picking a standout dicey.
The comedy, shot in that quasi-documentary mode employed by “The Office,” follows one colorfully extended family. Phil and Claire (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) have three squabbling kiddies (Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter). Claire’s father Jay (Ed O’Neill) is raising a child (Rico Rodriguez) with his new, curvaceous wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara). Claire’s gay brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), is raising an adopted daughter with his partner Cam (Eric Stonestreet).
Subdued hilarity ensues more often than not, and some of it is so expertly arranged it‘ll make you nod in sly appreciation.
“Family” episodes offer multiple plot strands that coalesce in the show’s waning moments. The overlapping plotlines evoke “Seinfeld,” although “Family” rarely reaches into the absurd for its humor. That will have to wait for seasons six, seven and eight. The jokes are typically clean and character based, making them more than just your standard sitcom gruel.
Watching the 3-disc set is to see a show hitting its stride gag after inspired gag. That’s not to detract from the early episodes, but you can feel the actors digging into their characters in small but meaningful ways.
Consider the Valentine’s Day episode, an instant classic featuring Phil and Claire trying a little role-playing fun to spice up the holiday. The two, often seen locking horns over some manufactured domestic crisis, strike up real chemistry after some false starts. Then, when it looks like they’re en route to a Valentine’s night to remember, the farcical elements hit a fever pitch.
The season’s iPad-themed episode is both a 30 minute infomerical and a delicious slice of television humor. Man-child Phil wants an iPad for his birthday, and Claire offers to wake up early to wait in line to purchase one for him. Naturally, she falls back asleep that morning and spends the rest of the episode scrambling to find one. Meanwhile, Phil ratchets down his expectations when every birthday treat turns into a trick.
It’s hard not to rally around Burrell’s Phil, whose innocence puts him at odds with his pragmatic wife. The part feels smarmy on paper, even cheap at first blush. But Burrell infuses Phil with such a beautifully naïve soul you root for him while cringing at his antics.
And it’s refreshing to see glimpses of Al Bundy peering out from O’Neill’s latest TV role.
Social conservatives may carp about the inclusion of a gay family into the mix. But the show’s writers, while making Cam on the swishy side, neither preach nor make their characters stale archetypes. The actors here find an atypical rhythm, one typified by an episode in which Cam trots out his alter ego, Fizbo the Clown.
A key ingredient in the show’s success is one that mirrors the long-running “Friends.” That cast showed audiences how much the characters mean to each other week after comical week. And people responded, perhaps because their own friends rarely showed such fidelity. The same holds true so far for this “Family.” They fight, they disagree and they step on each others' toes with alacrity. But when the smoke settles and peace resumes, it always feels like a family you’d want to call your own. That’s easier faked than done.
The Blu-ray package includes a number of extras, including deleted family interviews, deleted, extended and alternate scenes plus real “Modern Family" moments from the show’s creators.
“Modern Family” may not be able to sustain its high standards for multiple seasons. But with a gifted cast and enough characters to spark a near-endless supply of story arcs, it's not wise to bet against a long, healthy run.