It takes a lot to get this jaded television viewer to crack a smile, much less laugh, at a half-hour show. Yet Modern Family has repeatedly caused so many sustained outbursts of laughter that I can no longer drink anything while watching, lest I spray it all over my coffee table.
It is the writing and casting that elevates Modern Family far beyond most half-hour single-camera programs. Creators Christopher Lloyd (Frasier) and Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!) understand that for farce to succeed on television it must be highly inventive, while providing unexpected twists, physical comedy, and loads of dramatic irony. That they consistently stuff all four elements into every episode is miraculous enough, but that they make it consistently hilarious why the show is a triumph.
The show’s tagline explains its concept: “One big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family”. The Dunphy clan offers up the straight “traditional” family.
Phil (Ty Burrell) is the clueless, hapless, clumsy, trying-way-too-hard-to-be-cool dad. His well-intentioned but disastrous attempts to do just about anything — from fixing a door to romantic roleplay — generally provide the thrust of any Dunphy plot-line. He is also a gifted comedian, which elevates unfortunate situations into outright catastrophes. His foil is his beautiful but neurotic wife Claire (Julie Bowen), still struggling to shed her inner geek which, if she succeeded, would probably end the marriage since these are two geeks in a pod. Rounding out their household insanity is teen daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) who is growing up far too quickly and in love with a loser boyfriend; middle child Alex (Ariel Winter), the brainiac; and the mind-numbingly stupid youngest, Luke (Nolan Gould), who clearly is his father’s child.
Claire’s father Jay (Ed O’Neill) represents the traditional older man married to the younger, impossibly beautiful Gloria (Sofia Vergara), from Colombia. There’s a lot of comedy derived from the inevitable clashes of May-December romance, and enhanced by each of the couple’s own cultural idiosyncrasies. If the show has any weakness, it is its under-utilization of Mr. O’Neill. Fans of the short-lived series John From Cincinnati know that Mr. O’Neill can play a great Shakespearean clown. However, with a great comedic find in Ms. Vergara, there is more potential to mine here. In addition, young Manny (Rico Rodriguez) provides a delightful and hilarious contrast to the Dunphy children. All sensitivity, earnestness, and compassion, Manny often finds himself the hopeless outcast — an adult trapped in a child’s body.
The show’s gay family, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), along with adopted Asian baby Lily, provide the third prong for the series. While some may rightly criticize their relationship as being somewhat stereotypical, it is easily overlooked because of their hilarious plot-lines. Cameron is flamboyant, yes, but he knows it and revels in it. Mitchell may be a nervous and tightly wound individual, but he’s also self-aware enough to recognize it. That these two gentleman are so warmly portrayed also takes the curse off any overly-familiar aspects audiences may recognize from similar couples. The simple truth is the writers place them in such amusing situations, with an abundance of misunderstandings, that we’re too busy laughing to notice such minor shortcomings.
With such a broad range of character representing virtually every aspect of any given modern family, there is something here for everyone. The show is consistently fast-paced, cramming enormous amounts of plot into twenty-two minutes, while providing multiple laugh-out-loud moments. If that weren’t enough, the writing is so sharp that the situations themselves provide each episode’s life lesson, as well as sweet moments between the characters. The modern sitcom’s pointless requirement for a thoroughly explained moment of enlightenment is entirely expunged, thanks to the combined efforts of an extraordinary talented group of writers and actors.