A model of consistency.
As it enters its ninth season, that’s what “Modern Family” has become. Each episode, each season, is replete with quality one-liners and self-deprecating jokes. Since 2010, the show has been nominated for — or won — the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series every year. That’s the sterling reputation that “Modern Family” has earned for itself, and, if the season premiere is any indication, the series has no intention of changing its formula. Returning to its tried-and-true brand of zany, yet genuine humor, “Modern Family”’s ninth season offers loyal audiences exactly what they have come to expect, albeit at the expense of originality.
Right off the bat, “Modern Family”’s premiere establishes the series’ trademark tone, with Manny (Rico Rodriguez, “The Muppets”) re-inventing himself yet again to avoid embarrassment. Only this time, he’s adopted the name “Manuel” as he prepares to ship off to college. Manny’s inability to fit in has long been a running gag on the show, and this episode does a solid job of extending the joke.
Elsewhere, “Modern Family” introduces us to Alex’s (Ariel Winter, “Killers”) new boyfriend, Ben (Joe Mande, “Parks and Recreation”). Ben is saddled with the unenviable task of trying to make the Dunphys and Pritchetts like him, despite the fact that they all want nothing to do with him and his crop-top pajamas. Throughout the episode, Mande excels at being just the right amount of annoying and self-aware, as he agrees with Claire’s (Julie Bowen, “Happy Gilmore”) rant about how he is “a huge reason why I need a vacation.”
Although Mande absorbs most of the episode’s verbal jabs, Cam (Eric Stonestreet, “The Secret Life of Pets”) still shines in his reduced role as the episode’s punching bag. Stonestreet spends most of the episode being ripped apart by Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, “Ice Age: Collision Course”) and Gloria (Sofía Vergara, “Chef”) for donning a frighteningly ugly white robe and obnoxious amount of sunscreen to avoid sunburn, all while insisting to Mitchell, “We have great taste.”
Cam continues to be the ideal foil for everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, Jay (Ed O’Neill, “Married with Children”). Cam’s unabashedly optimistic persona meshes perfectly with Jay’s constant cynicism, producing some of the episode’s finest moments. As Jay wallows in his sorrowful realization that he is an unmemorable grandpa, Stonestreet reminds him of the time he so graciously “went to Costco and got me that giant thing of almond milk,” with O’Neill justifying his kindness: “Well you like it and it doesn’t go bad!” The entire scene is a gorgeous example of the type of funny, yet heartfelt comedy that has come to define “Modern Family.”
Strangely absent from this whole comedic picture is usual “Modern Family” stalwart Phil (Ty Burrell, “The Incredible Hulk”), who barely receives any screen time in the episode outside of a few hilarious scenes with Claire. It’s an odd decision for the show given that Burrell can carry “Modern Family” with his perpetually neurotic style and that Burrell shines in his brief moments in the episode. Since Burrell is seen as one of the faces of the series, it seems reasonable to expect his role return to its normal size for the remainder of the season.
Even without Burrell’s typical zaniness dominating the episode, the episode reeks of the battle-tested “Modern Family” formula. Chiefly, this recipe entails a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor from Cam, laughable paranoia from Gloria, blissful ignorance from Manny and a biting sardonic wit from Jay. This formula has allowed the show to reach the apex of small-screen comedy, it also drags the series down in places because using it lacks any semblance of creativity or innovation in it. While “Modern Family”’s characters maintain some of television’s strongest and most enjoyable chemistry, the show’s own consistency could be its downfall if it continues its dogged dependence on formula.