Every decade can lay claim to their own. The Cleavers, the Bradys, the Keatons, the Seavers, the Cosbys, the Conners. They’re all TV sitcom families. And for a while, after the Fox Network pulled the Bluth family out from under us, many of us thought there would be no more TV sitcom families not named Simpson.
The family sitcom had a formula that worked for decades. Mom and Dad plus kids equal wacky antics. Some did it better than others. Some families managed to turn the family sitcom on its head (the Bundys or the Bluths) with varying degrees of success. But after a while, I suppose the masses decided that the formula was just too...formulaic. And then Survivor did well and unleashed on us a scourge of reality television which appeared to leave the television sitcom family dead in the water. Washed up. A relic of the past.
Meet the Pritchett/Dunphy/Tucker/Delgado family of ABC’s sitcom, Modern Family. That’s right, a TV sitcom family in this age of American Idol, Top Chef and the Gosselin-family train wreck. A show that teaches us that a show about a functional family can be well-written, funny, heartbreaking and smart all at once.
Jay Pritchett (played by none other than Al Bundy, or Ed O’Neill) is the patriarch of this family. He is divorced, but remarried to a much-younger Colombian beauty Gloria (the gorgeous Sofia Vergara), who has an eleven year old son, the culturally-sensitive Manny (the extremely hilarious Rico Rodriguez). Jay’s grown children, who live in the same town, are Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson in all his ginger adorableness) and Claire (the always dependable Julie Bowen). Mitch is gay and lives with his partner Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and the two have adopted a little girl from Vietnam, Lily. Claire is a stay at home mom married to Phil (Ty Burell) a man who tries far too hard to be liked by...well everyone. They have three kids, Haley, Alex and Luke (Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, and Nolan Gould).
So what is it about this family that makes the show work? Certainly they’re a family that has more in common with the family from Little Miss Sunshine than the Cosbys. And that may be the secret. More people can relate to a family like the Pritchett/Dunphy/Tucker/Delgado family than they can to the Cosbys or the Bradys. Families are not made up of a bunch of perfect parents helpfully guiding their precocious children through life’s minor ups and downs. No, people are dysfunctional. And a good family is one that can work with (or, in spite of) its members’ obvious dysfunctions and flaws.
And you want dysfunction and flaws? Modern Family can give them to you. Jay is curmudgeonly. Gloria may or may not be a gold-digger (the jury is still out on that one). Phil is over-eager and dorkish. Claire is all too aware that she’s smarter and savvier than her husband. Mitch can be hard-hearted, while Cam is far too much of a softie.
But everyone loves each other. Why? Because they’re family and sometimes that’s the only reason you need, and quite often, the only reason you can find. You know, kind of like Arrested Development’s Bluth family. Everything about this show works, but what really makes it is the non-narrative way the stories are told. It’s told in a mockumentary style, much like The Office. Which is brilliant because we not only get to see the situations happening, but then we get documentary-style interviews where the characters can snark. And since this is a docu-style show, security camera footage is used to great effect. In the pilot, Mitch and Cam are talking about how long they’d been waiting for the adoption. Cam, who is jovially overweight, says that he gained baby weight. Now, in a traditional style sitcom, Mitch would have made a joke about the baby not forcing Cam to take two helping of dinner that night. And the laugh track would have exploded. Modern Family does things a little differently. Instead of a joke, Mitch makes a ‘can you believe this guy’ face at the camera, then it cuts away to security camera footage of Cam in his pajamas stuffing his face at the refrigerator. Because Modern Family trusts their viewers to get jokes without being hammered over the head with them, they have thankfully left the laugh track out.
And the dialogue! Have I mentioned the dialogue? It’s funny and fast-paced and sweet and snarky all at once. A few great examples:
Cameron: I'm sort of like Costco. I'm big, I'm not fancy and I dare you to not like me.
Cameron: There's a fish in nature that swims around with its babies in its mouth. That fish would look at Mitchell's relationship with his mother and say, "That's messed up."
Jay [to Manny]: Let's go buddy, it's school time. Oh, and Gloria, if you want to get together with the girls later I can just, you know, watch the football game or something.
Manny: That means he wants to watch a football game.
Jay: I'm not talkin' to you. And what're you drinking coffee for anyway?
Manny: It's my culture, I'm Colombian.
Jay: Oh yeah, what part of Colombia are those French toaster sticks from?
Mitchell: You had your own moments. You had cheerleading, and high school plays, and making out with the quarterback...
Claire: Oh come on, you made out with him, too.
Mitchell: Yeah, but we had to keep it a secret.
Cameron: If I wasn't in school or fishing, I was clowning. There are four types of clowns: a tramp, Auguste, a whiteface, and a character. I am a classically trained Auguste clown named Fizbo.
Mitchell: Between the clowning and the fishing, I'm surprised you had time for the schooling. Aww, there's the fifth type, the sad clown.
Cameron: A sad clown is a tramp.. so there's still only four types.
Mitchell: Still keeping traditions alive, huh?
Jay: Someone has to. I got two Colombians at home trying to turn Christmas into Cinco de Mayo.
Mitchell: You know that's Mexican right?
Jay: Ahh. Burrito, burr-righto.
Mitchell: I had to actually come out to my dad three times before he acknowledged it. I'm not sure if maybe he was hoping he heard it wrong, like I said 'Dad, I'm grey.'
So this Wednesday, watch Modern Family and find out what happens when Arrested Development meets The Office. Because the writing is smart but accessible, the characters are realistic but not boring, the situations are, indeed, somewhat wacky but remain relatable. But most of all, the fifties could lay claim to the Cleavers, the seventies to the Bradys, the eighties to the Cosbys and the nineties to the Conners. The aughts brought a drought of TV families. So let’s let the Pritchett/Dunphy/Tucker/Delgado clan own the teens.