Friday, November 13, 2009

How Modern is Modern Family?

They're so...diverse. On paper, ABC’s Modern Family sounds like a good idea.  Ed O’Neill, of Married…with Children fame, stars in a laughtrack-less comedy about a modern extended family.  Christopher Lloyd, the Emmy-winning screenwriter/producer who spent a number of years helming Frasier (a much better show than Andrew gives it credit for), serves as executive producer.  It faces little comedy competition in its timeslot.  The only thing close is Fox’s Glee, which appears to be catering to a much different crowd.

A few weeks ago, Andrew did his best to chronicle the most recent mutations of the sitcom formula, pointing to Arrested Development as a major game-changer despite being a commercial flop.  Like A.D., Modern Family features an ensemble family cast of relative unknowns (the most famous after O’Neill is probably that girl from Ed).  This is also similar to Emmy-fiend 30 Rock, which parades Alec Baldwin around like a Macy’s parade float while simultaneously stocking the cast with talented D-listers.   Like perennial favorite The Office, it features an unexplained mockumentary style used mostly as a punch line mine. 

Modern Family cannot hide these influences.  In fact, it feels carefully constructed to channel its predecessors whenever possible.  This often means funny characters in funny situations, but Modern Family hasn’t made the leap to “Inspired” just yet.

The three shows on Modern Family’s Works Cited page share little in common, save the lack of a studio audience.  Arrested Development’s humor is often the result of vicious conflict – family members selfishly sniping at one another.  The Office, climbing down from the shoulders of the British original, bet it all on Steve Carrell and his ability to make awkwardness hilarious and endearing.  30 Rock proudly struts down a catwalk of Surrealism, blending celebrity with absurdism with a healthy dose of behind-the-scenes self-deprecation. 

Contrast these with the two biggest CBS comedies: Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother.  Both are three-camera, studio audience affairs with a more conventional feel.  People will stand sort of next to each other.  Punch lines will be delivered.  Then there will be a pause while people laugh.  You know the drill.

O’Neill and co. fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  The show’s comprised of three couples: O’Neill and his stereotypically sexy younger Colombian wife, his daughter and her husband plus three kids, and his gay son and partner who recently adopted a Vietnamese child.  It’s a “Let’s Throw Everything In the Pot” kind of scenario that I’m not necessarily against, though it doesn’t always feel used to its full potential. 

Modern Family, with its progressive cast and minefield of family relations, looks to follow in the footsteps of the current NBC giants.  Unfortunately, it usually falls just short.  When son-in-law Phil sits down with Jay (O’Neill) to help him with a model airplane, the awkward act of grown men playing the “I’m Uncomfortable Around My Girlfriend’s Dad” game generates a few chuckles, but the timing’s slightly off.  When Jay instructs his new stepson Manny to get revenge on some bullies, the cutaway of Manny setting a bicycle on fire is amusing but not pitch-perfect like the ones on Arrested Development or 30 Rock.  And when Phil delivers a strained metaphor about silverback gorillas to the camera, only to close with a non-sequitur about poachers being the real enemy, it’s easy to close your ears and imagine Steve Carrell finding a way to nail it.

In general, it seems to be lacking the edge of shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock.  Whenever a fuzzy moment crops up between Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, you can expect him to quickly burst the bubble.  Modern Family’s heartfelt moments are laborious and saccharine.  It isn’t content to let people fall on their faces.  To end episodes with characters in guffaw-worthy despair.  Too many episodes have so far concluded with the narrative equivalent of a hug (one ended with an actual group embrace).

Much of the show’s issues can probably be attributed to it still getting its sea legs.  It won its timeslot for the pilot and has been second or third every week since, so they’re definitely doing something right.  So far, some of the show’s best gags have been physical – O’Neill purposefully flying a model jet into his son-in-law’s face, the drunken ex-wife kicking over O’Neill’s wedding cake as she’s carried out mimicking his new Colombian bride’s accent.  And some of the more subtle humor comes from clever parallel scenes between families or broader commentary like a gay snob’s gradual acceptance-slash-obsession with Costco.

If Modern Family can develop a stronger voice of its own, it should carve out a niche as ABC’s answer to NBC’s comedy renaissance.  As it stands, its a perfectly fine amalgamation of devices that have defined other shows.  And by perfectly fine I mean just fine for a Wednesday when you’re probably not watching anything else.