Kayla Upadhyaya: 'Modern Family' has misplaced values despite big success

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published March 18, 2012

Five Emmys in one year is no easy feat, but “Modern Family” made it look like a cakewalk this past August when the ABC sitcom raked in wins for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Exhausted? You’re not alone. Hearing any show’s title called out that many times in one awards ceremony would make me uneasy, because it means other deserving shows are probably being ignored.

Kayla Upadhyaya

Don’t get me wrong — when “Modern Family” first came out, I was instantly smitten. But lately, I’ve been finding more and more reasons to complain about the show. Let’s put the Emmy topic aside, since I don’t wish to discuss whether it deserved its endless wins. The absurd lack of nominations year after year for “Community” and “Parks and Recreation” is enough proof that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is woefully wrong when it comes to recognizing television’s best comedies, and I would hate to beat a dead horse (it’s probably too soon to make a “Luck” joke, right?).

Instead, let’s focus on how “Modern Family” is fooling itself and its viewers. As the title and many of the themes suggest, “Modern Family” wants so desperately to be a progressive movement, a champion of breaking down the traditional family and defying social norms. But the show falls very short of this ambitious goal, often perpetuating sexist stereotypes and limiting the characters to gender roles that are anything but “modern.”

For one, none of the women on the show have jobs outside of the home. I’d be more willing to let this slide, because yes, some women make the choice to stay at home and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But Claire either fails or is depicted as inferior every time she enters the realm outside of motherhood or wifedom, which really sends a message about where the writers of “Modern Family” believe a woman belongs.

No episode makes this clearer than “Hit and Run,” when Claire decides to run for city council. At first, I was thrilled because Claire seems genuinely thrilled herself. But then I realized that the show is setting her up to fail. Claire has barely even made up her mind to run before everything starts spiraling out of control: Phil accidentally punches Luke in the face when trying to nurse a scratch, he gives Alex the wrong allergy medicine, and he just generally fails to run the house with the efficiency of Claire.

Of course we laugh at Phil’s ineptitude, but what is the show trying to say? Can Claire really not balance the roles of a career woman and a mother? On top of this, Phil’s main reason for wanting Claire to run for office is because he’s turned on by powerful women, not because he wants Claire to succeed. “Hit and Run” similarly mistreats Gloria, who spends the whole episode trying to get her husband and son to listen to her advice. Jay finally allows Gloria to help him with a sales pitch, but what wins the client over? Well, her natural “assets,” of course.

Every once in a while, “Modern Family” will have an episode that makes me say yes, there’s that forward-thinking mentality you’re always preaching and rarely practicing! Take “Virgin Territory” for example. Alex inadvertently reveals to Phil that Haley isn’t a virgin. Phil is initially shellshocked — though no one else is … doesn’t he remember former boyfriend Dylan’s hit song “In the Moonlight (Do Me)”? But Phil doesn’t lock Haley in a cellar for the rest of her life or patronize her with a lecture. Instead, he assures her that if she feels ready, he trusts her to make decisions for herself. Cue the waterworks.

But then “Virgin Territory” was immediately followed by the problematic “Leap Day.” The episode was already destined to fail, following the ingenious Leap Day-themed “30 Rock” episode that so wonderfully created an imaginary holiday I wish was real.

“Modern Family” ’s “Leap Day” is centered around Phil’s favorite day being ruined when Haley, Alex and Claire all slip into ultra-emotional states since, as Luke excellently puts it, they’re all “monsterating.” Other sitcoms have succeeded with a similar premise, but “Modern Family” comes across as insincere, trite and offensive, focusing mainly on the plight of poor Manny, Luke and Phil in the situation and making the Dunphy women look like actual crazy people. What’s more, the B-plot features Jay questioning his masculinity since he avoids conflict when men insult Gloria. We got the great payoff of Sofia Vergara socking John DiMaggio in the face, but is the show trying to say that Jay is less of a man because of his pacifism? The sidestory was too underdeveloped for me to come to any major conclusions about its message, which is a whole other problem in and of itself.

I’d have more of a problem with “Modern Family” if it wasn’t so funny and if it didn’t feature a superb cast, including some of the most talented child actors around (Rico Rodriguez and Nolan Gould are the best things to have happened to television in a while). And the writers usually succeed in taking simple plotlines and making them hilarious — Claire desperately trying to get her daughters to friend her on Facebook reminded me so much of my own mother that I couldn’t help but laugh (sorry mom, still not going to happen!).

But when creator Steven Levitan remarks in his umpteenth Emmy acceptance speech that fans come up to him and say things like “You're not just making people laugh; you're making them more tolerant,” I can’t help but want to tell everyone to calm down. Yes, I think it’s great that the show features a same-sex couple raising their adopted Vietnamese child and functioning like any other family, but let’s not forget that this is a show about upper-middle-class families in the suburbs whose biggest problems are things like whether or not they should confess to their golf buddies that they didn’t make that hole-in-one or what elaborate theme they should select for their spouse’s birthday party. Is this what the modern family looks like? Where are the single mothers and the parents struggling to make ends meet?

If “Modern Family” were truly teaching tolerance, it would be more attentive to its female characters and gender dynamics within the show. And until it does so, I simply can’t agree with the critics who laud the show as one of the best.