Since its premiere, “Modern Family” has been one of the most lauded shows on television. This speaks to the value of sharp writing and execution in sitcoms. There have been plenty of comedies about big, pleasantly dysfunctional families before. But with a few “modern” tweaks to the formula (a gay couple, a May-December marriage) and fresh, well-written material, “Modern Family” has always managed to say stuff that’s funny and meaningful, despite the fact that it’s really just a big-family sitcom with jokes about texting and Justin Bieber. Unfortunately, season three of the show has brought its flaws into focus, while stepping back from a lot of the things that made it great.

Modern Family

Season Three Midseason
Wednesdays at 9 p.m.

“Modern Family” has always hung its hat on structural cohesion. The writers are good enough that almost every episode will feature funny storylines for the three families. The very best episodes of the show, though, bring plotlines together seamlessly for big payoffs (season one’s “Fizbo” and “Family Portrait”; season two’s “Manny Get Your Gun”). There hasn’t been any of that this season. The best episode, “Door to Door,” comes the closest, with a little door-closing montage that ties together Manny, Gloria, and Claire’s storylines. But even in that episode, the characters were all just doing their own thing.

The biggest problem with “Modern Family,” and one that’s been significant since at least the second half of season two, is the gay couple, Cam and Mitchell. For a show aiming for human depth rather than high-concept innovation, “Modern Family” dips into the trope well a great deal for these two. Cam is shrill, over the top and touchy. Mitchell is anal, controlling, and … touchy. Take stereotypical bitchy girlfriend character, split personality in two, and voila, you have your own modern gay couple.

“Modern Family” has never exactly been subtle, but this season has featured a lot more comedic broadness than the first two. The Phil and Luke storylines have long been among the best the show has to offer, but when the payoff is literally just Luke throwing a ball at Phil’s head, it’s hard to help thinking the writers could have stretched a little more. Gloria’s portrayal has turned troublingly stereotypical, and she rarely has much to do other than be difficult to understand and drop lines about how violent Colombia was.

Season three of “Modern Family” hasn’t been bad. The show has never been about being groundbreaking, and some of the old joys are still there. Phil, aforementioned “America’s Funniest Home Videos” turn aside, is still one of the funniest characters on television, and Luke is right there with him. But one klutz dad and crazy kid can’t carry a show — and increasingly, they’ve had to.

When a third of the show is dead weight, the big set pieces that defined its first two seasons become impossible to pull off, and it’s telling that the writers haven’t even tried. “Modern Family” is still enjoyable, but in the oversaturated sitcom landscape that is fall 2011, it’s not special anymore.

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