'Modern Family' is a dysfunctional domestic sitcom done right

BY ERIC CHIU
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 27, 2009

The “quirkily dysfunctional family” sitcom sub-genre has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in recent years, with shows like “Arrested Development” and “Malcolm in the Middle” milking generous comedic mileage from the unique combination of disdain and affection that most people have toward their families. There’s a similar vein of thought at work in ABC’s “Modern Family,” which deftly takes after the genre's best shows while simultaneously bringing something new to the usual formula.

"Modern Family"


Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
ABC

“Modern Family” revolves around the Pritchetts and their extended family,including father Jay (Ed O’Neill, “Married…with Children”), the family of daughter Claire (Julie Bowen, “Boston Legal”) and gay couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, CBS's “The Class”) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"). The show is presented in a mockumentary format similar to “The Office,” hopping between the three families with frequent talking-head interstitials.

It’s rare to see a pilot effectively establish everything it needs, but already “Modern Family” has a strong sense of what kind of a show it wants to be. Comedically, it’s firmly in the mold of shows like “30 Rock” and “The Office.” Upon being romantically turned down by a female employee at the mall, 11-year-old Manny (Rico Rodriguez II, “Cory in the House”) laments: “I gave her my heart and she gave me a picture of myself as an old-time sheriff.”

The structure of “Modern Family” helps this deliberate comedic pace considerably. The show offers character-centric humor with a shift toward farce: A highlight of the pilot has Claire’s husband Phil (Ty Burrell, “Back To You”), while teaching his son about the danger of BB guns, accidentally shoot his son, his daughter’s boyfriend and himself. The mockumentary format lets the show dole out its jokes at a relaxed pace.

Compared to any typical multi-camera sitcom, the show is comfortable enough in its sensibilities that it doesn’t feel the need to beat viewers over the head with its jokes, which helps the show carry its comedic load immensely.

Likewise, its writing and ensemble cast help bring all these facets together. The show avoids making the Pritchetts into just an assembled bundle of quirks and neuroses, fleshing out their characters to varying degrees.

Burrell is a particular standout, playing Phil — the “cool” dad in all the wrong ways — with the right touches of obliviousness and desperation. (On his hipness, Phil remarks: “I surf the Web, I text — LOL, laugh out loud, OMG, oh my god, WTF, why the face.”)

Elsewhere, the character development's a bit rougher: Jay and second wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara, “The Knights of Prosperity”) feel more broadly drawn than the rest of the cast, with Vergara playing the opposing “fiery Latina” stereotype to O’Neill’s sad-sack grandfather. For the most part though, whether it’s Mitchell’s continued exasperation with his family’s disapproval or Claire worrying about her daughter retracing her own steps as a wild teenager, the writing more than supports the show’s ambitions.

In a fall season marked more by tired retreadding over familiar themes than anything else, it’s encouraging to find in “Modern Family” a show that wants to do more than just meet expectations. Its variations on the genre aren’t necessarily revelatory, but the show’s hearty premise, excellent writing and solid ensemble cast easily make it one of the best freshman outings this season.