Saturday, February 23, 2013

Family Units

The depiction of family life on television has changed dramatically from the models of the technology's early years in the Fifties. Shlomo Schwartzberg examined that change in a piece on Modern Family for Critics at Large.

The (Funny) Way We Live Now: Modern Family

The cast of Modern Family

Note: The following contains Spoilers

Modern Family (ABC), like The Big Bang Theory (CBS), is an excellent comedy that offers up likeable, compelling characters while not forgetting to make the viewer laugh. But while The Big Bang Theory is an old-fashioned – in style – comedy, with a laugh track, videotaped before a live audience with a two camera system, Modern Family is a more modern creature, a filmed on location, single-camera show without a laugh track. But just as The Big Bang Theory also uses hip lingo and au courant situations,Modern Family displays a taste for old-school humour, pratfalls, slapstick and the like. Melding those two disparate elements make it a very unique series indeed. The best two comedies on television both can claim that stature, allowing each to make their distinctive mark.

In so many significant ways, Modern Family is the finest exemplar of how we actually are today. Created by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not the Taxi/Back to the Future actor), with nine other writers on the producing team, it centres on three Los Angeles, California-based families, who are related to each other in various ways. The traditional nuclear family, the Dunphys, are represented by Claire (Julie Bowen), a stay-at-home mother (yes, they still exist!), Phil (Ty Burrell), a real estate agent, and their three kids, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Claire’s father, curmudgeonly business owner Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) has a blended family, made up of his Colombian second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her preternaturally grown-up teenage son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). And Claire’s brother, Jay’s son, lawyer Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) also has a stay-at-home partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet); the couple recently adopted a Vietnamese girl Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons). Each week, interspersed with one-on-one interviews by an off-camera individual for a purported mock documentary, Modern Family wrings smart and knowing episodes out of seemingly ordinary, even banal scenarios that nevertheless result in some of the funniest moments ever seen on network TV. It’s not surprising it dominated the comedy categories at last week’s Emmy Awards. (It won for Best Comedy series, and there were nods for Bowen and Stonestreet as Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively, and a Best Directing award for Levitan.). This is one show that deserves the accolades it regularly receives.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet
The fourth season opener, which ran last week, followed up on the ramifications of Gloria’s big reveal from the 2011/12 season finale, namely her unexpected pregnancy, something she’s thrilled about, but scared to tell Jay, suspecting (wrongly) that he won’t be as happy as she is. Shanghaied by Phil and two of Jay’s friends to celebrate his 65th birthday on a fishing trip, Jay was starting to feel that he’d reached the end of the road in terms of life’s potential for excitement. Gloria’s news rejuvenated him and made him look forward to having a baby in the house. That type of unpredictable revelation is common to the series which, except for the odd (acceptable) dose of sentiment, is a scrupulously honest and uncompromising take on how people and families feel, act and relate to each other. That was evident in how members of her family, immediate and extended, took to Gloria’s news. Manny saw himself lessened as he would no longer, he believed, be the apple of his mother’s eye, nor the centre of attention in the Pritchett clan. Claire, cattily, couldn’t help grinning when she contemplated how ‘fat’ Gloria would become. Her jealousy of the Latina bombshell is partially fuelled by her awareness that Phil lusts after Gloria, too, a state of affairs that allows the gifted Burrell to mutter double entendres that she doesn’t quite entirely hear. (His goofy shtick is reminiscent of Frasier’s Niles’ classic fixation on Daphne Moon, his father’s caregiver.) And Cam and Mitchell, who just failed in their attempts to adopt a baby boy to add to their family, have conflicted feelings, at best.

Modern Family often exposes the lie at the heart of most sitcoms revolving around families, namely that negative, narcissistic or even ugly emotions cannot and do not co-exist with love and acceptance in the bosom of the family unit(s), but does it in a more, nuanced subtle way then the political fights Mike and Archie had on All in the Family. For one thing, there’s real animosity between sisters Haley and Alex, such as I don’t think I’ve seen displayed on a comedy show before, with the former more of a party girl (and not much into school) and the latter a nerdy brainiac. While Haley did let slip in one episode that she thought Alex was beautiful and Alex was genuinely excited when her sister graduated high school, it didn’t take away from the frequently vicious comments the siblings tossed at each other. Alex is not above making fun of Haley’s lack of book smarts, and Haley loves tossing barbs at Alex’s deficient (in her mind) social graces especially when it comes to attracting guys. Haley’s boyfriend, Dylan (Reid Ewing), doesn’t help her situation any; he’s pretty thick as Alex is quick to remark ad nauseum. Yet the two also know how to work their feuding to outwit Claire, who can be manipulated pretty easily by her daughters.

Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen
Similarly Jay, who’s a pretty conservative guy (likely the only Republican voter in the extended Pritchett/Dunphy family) is not too comfortable with the fact that his son is gay, a realistic state of affairs that is likely quite true for many parents of gays and lesbians, but one rarely if ever depicted on sitcoms which generally tend to hew to political correctness when it comes to gay sexuality. Usually that type of feeling shows up on TV as obvious anti-gay bigotry, such as in the recently debuted The New Normal, which is a simplistic portrait. People forget that the older generation, like my parents who were born in Europe, simply didn’t grow up with knowledge (except in the most cursory manner) of homosexuality nor, unlike younger folk, did they know people who were out. I, too, was pretty sheltered growing in a conservative Jewish environment, and likely came to awareness of same sex relationships later than today’s kids. So Jay’s attitude is an accurate, understandable one and also discomfiting because he does take hurtful shots at Mitchell regarding his lack of ‘manliness’ even though he loves his son, too. (Those opposing feelings are not mutually exclusive.) He’s an equal opportunity offender, as well, as he takes the same shots at his son-in-law, telling him to grow a pair in one episode. Jay doesn’t mind Phil so much, but isn’t terribly enamored with him either and it’s quite painful to watch how hard Phil tries to curry Jay’s favour. None of this is to suggest that Jay is a complete asshole, just a typical product of a macho 'don’t show your emotions' generation. (Being with Gloria, who wears her emotions on her sleeve, is mellowing him.) But it’s a complex portrait nonetheless, and aced by O’Neill, likely the best-known actor on the series. While Bowen and Burrell, for example, boast credits that include WeedsE.R. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit among them, it was O’Neill’s turn as put-upon hapless shoe salesman Al Bundy in the long-running (11 years) Married with Children that is the most resonant with long-time TV watchers. But that series was a one-note, overdone, obviously jokey one, compared to Modern Family, and Jay Pritchett is far beyond the caricature that was Al Bundy. I am not familiar with too many of Modern Family’s cast, actually, besides O’Neill and Bowen who stood out as a sensual love interest for 17-year-old Silas Botwin in the cable series Weeds, but they’re all terrific, perfectly melding their characters so you believe in them and their relationships with each other.

Cam and Mitchell may initially seem like gay stereotypes – their bickering and arguments define drama queen(s) to a T, but they, too, go beyond the obvious. Cam is quick to detect anti-gay slurs even when they don’t exist, as in one episode when he assumed that the accepting Haley and Alex were displaying prejudice when they doubted his ability to drive a truck on an errand the three had to run. They weren’t being intolerant; they simply thought he was too klutzy to do so, and they were right when he got them stuckon a median. But then Cam turned around, after being set straight (no pun intended) and derogatorily referred to a gay trucker who was trying to help the trio as 'she’, doubting that the other driver could pull off the difficult turn he couldn’t. He was wrong again, but the incident served to showcase how bigotry can cut more than one way and appear from unlikely sources. There was also the moving, beautifully understated depiction of Luke’s relationship with a crotchety, elderly next door neighbour (Philip Baker Hall), which didn’t play out as expected when the neighbour suddenly died. Luke seeming disinterest in that sad fact of life, which was his way of coping with the devastating news, was drawn out so carefully and in such a non-melodramatic, unexpected fashion that it made for riveting TV. So did one episode where Alex and Haley misunderstanding their parent’s squabble, determined that a divorce was in the offing. (Not a chance, as Phil and Claire are deeply in love and compatible even if Phil’s rah-rah attitude towards life often annoys the cynical Claire, and he stoically puts up with her rigidity and controlling manner.) The series acknowledged that Phil and Claire’s married life was not the norm today – most of the girls’ friends came from broken homes or reconstituted ones – and still managed to convey the fear Alex and Haley felt about becoming collateral damage in the divorce wars. Modern Family is always smart and knowing that way. You also saw a different side of Phil when he found out that Haley was having sex with Dylan, months after Claire already knew. His realization that his 'innocent' girl was growing up was handled with uncommon delicacy and taste, particularly for TV, so much so that I don't doubt parents of teenagers could recognize themselves in his uncomfortable reactions.
Sofia Vergara and Ed O'Neill
Gloria, too, breaks the barrier of cultural perceptions, but unlike Cam and Mitchell, who are hardly the first gay characters to regularly appear on network TV, Vergara’s character is still a rare example of a Hispanic portrayal on series television, and the first of a Colombian since René Enriquez’s policeman Ray Calletano on the superb Hill Street Blues; we really haven’t come that far since Cuban-American Desi Arnaz appeared on the classic '50s series I Love Lucy, and he only got on the air because he was married to the show’s star. (That’s shocking as Hispanic-Americans have now surpassed African-Americans as the United States’ largest minority population.) Gloria may seem typically emotional in the expected ‘excessive’ Latin way – and she makes fun of herself for being so, and for coming from a country seen by native-born Americans, including sometimes even Jay, as run by the drug cartels – but she’s a savvy, knowing woman who just happens to be a stunningly beautiful one, too. She’s in her thirties and hardly Jay’s trophy wife either. In many ways, in its depiction of Latin people (Law & Order’s Benjamin Bratt occasionally pops up as Gloria’s ne’er do well, but charming ex- husband) alongside Caucasians and gays living next to straights, the show subverts viewer’s possible prejudices. (Cable show Six Feet Under did the same with its presentation of gay protagonists, but it wasn’t seen by nearly as large an audience as Modern Family, one of the more successful shows on television.) Whatever the family compact, homosexual, heterosexual, blended, they’re all shown as equally normal, which of course they are. (The series did receive some flack for not allowing Mitchell and Cameron to kiss for the longest time, and then only in the background of a scene but covered itself by letting Mitchell cop to being uncomfortable with public displays of affection. So maybe America, or network TV, isn’t quite ready for a full-on gay kiss between men (women’s same sex smooches are another matter), but perhaps that’s not so important when the gay characters are otherwise portrayed with so much sensitivity, sympathy and realism.

It’s important to note that Modern Family’s often groundbreaking portraits are not moralistic or unduly serious; they fit nicely into a comedic framework in a show that is still not afraid of the pie in the face, sometimes literally. Whether it’s Claire – whose coat is stuck on an escalator, with her wearing nothing on underneath (she was on a date night with Phil and things went awry as they often do with that pair); or in a seeming ‘lesbian’ clinch with Gloria when she tries to help her so she can get unstuck; or Phil’s amusing mooning over Gloria; or even Luke’s odd, off-kilter way of looking at life when he’s not being put in drag for family photos as ‘Betty-Luke’, Modern Family does not shy away from salacious moments – or implied sexually suggestive scenarios. (Apparently, though, Bowen is required by network censors to wear pasties over her nipples because they would show through her clothing, which is quite an odd example of censorship for a show like this.) Modern Family also possesses an absurdest soul as with Cameron’s former life as Fizbo the Clown; sometimes he sleep walks and wakes up next to Mitchell in full clown makeup and regalia. A lot of the series’ comedic highlights involve guest stars; the best so far Arrested Development’s David Cross as an officious city councilman who raises Claire’s ire; and Nathan Lane, as a flamboyant friend of Cam and Mitchell’s, whose moniker is the delicious Pepper Schwartz. Fred Willard (Fernwood 2 Night) changed gears in a more serious role as Jay’s emotionally distant father, and he won an Emmy for that appearance; Cheers’ Shelley Long also appeared as Jay’s needy ex-wife. And I must mention Rico Rodriguez, who's a hoot as the so-serious Manny, a teenager who's wise beyond his years (or thinks he is) and walks around with a perpetual worrying frown. His sombre observations on love and life are ridiculously overwrought, but sweet, too.

It’s really not all that surprising that Modern Family is such a sharp, cutting show. Levitan and Lloyd honed their comedy chops on such stellar, razor sharp series as Frasier and The Larry Sanders Showas well as underrated comedy Wings. (Levitan’s credit on Just Shoot Me, that awful David Spade show, seems a notable exception to his talented output.) And by dramatizing their own family situations, they’ve brought a rare verisimilitude to comedy series, network or cable. (Most cable successes, except for The Larry Sanders Show, were dramatic breakthroughs.) In fact, except for the characters’ socio-economic status (they are closer to the upper middle class than middle class), they’re just like you and I, your recognizable next door neighbours, friends, co-workers and family members. They aptly personify the way we live now, with many laughs, some tears and a whole lot of wit and imagination.

- originally published on October 4, 2012 in Critics at Large. 

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

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