Modern Family, “The Kiss” and Cougar Town, “Let Yourself Go”

Ed note: I’ve been away at the 2010 Flow Conference, so posts have been delayed. I’ll be catching up with a few of last week’s series in the first few days of this week.

Just like my write ups on FOX’s Tuesday comedy block, I seem to enjoy writing about ABC’s Modern Family and Cougar Town at the same time, for whatever reason (if not anything more than just basic comparison).

It’s weird, because although both of these comedies are domestic sitcoms about families, they tend to have problems with, I guess the right word is “realism.” Modern Family, in my opinion, struggles to make its heartfelt endings seem real and Cougar Town sometimes gets too zany for its own good (much like the later years of Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs).

And though both series had varying degrees of success with tackling this issue in their respective premieres — with Cougar Town handling it much better — I think their second episodes, “The Kiss” and “Let Yourself Go” work better.

Because the premiere annoyed me so much, I had a stronger and more positive reaction to Modern Family‘s “Kiss.” Really since the beginning of the series, fans have been calling for Cameron and Mitchell to kiss as if that is something of a confirmation of their gay-ness. While I can absolutely see that point of view, particularly in the hindsight of the praise about the series’ representations, I can also buy into Levitan and Lloyd’s point that it’s more important to have good, likable characters and an organic situation than forcing the characters into something false to just to prove a certain point.

With that in mind, “The Kiss” both offers that (fairly) organic situation for Cam and Mitchell while also improving the series’ ability to tell heartwarming stories that seem real and natural. The episode starts with all three families dealing with their various and complicated issues, both by the time they come together for dinner, the conflicts bubbling under the surface come to the forefront.

Unlike other past episodes, the conflict here ties all the stories together and feels like something real families would go through without seeming too on-the-nose. Jay’s inability to be affectionate with Mitchell fits totally within the parameters of the character’s relationship and makes sense in terms of the general relationship between fathers and sons. It’s also a nice reason to explain the lack of PDA between Mitchell and Cam as well, even if we have seen them multiple times at home with little to no affection as well.

And for me personally, I liked that the climax of the episode combined humor and heart instead of simply being funny and then tacking on the uplifting message through voice-over after the fact. I know there was still a voice-over, but because it tied more into the events of the episode as a whole, it worked better.

The problem with Modern Family isn’t that it can’t be funny and heartwarming. It’s that it too often tries to separate the two throughout the episode and then bring them together in the final minute as if that’s exactly how things are supposed to go and simply doesn’t feel earned most of the time. This past episode, it did, and there simply needs to be more of that.

Meanwhile, though Cougar Town didn’t have much trouble in its premiere convincing me it was a funny series that could mix in the heart with ease, “Let Yourself Go” still does a much better job at it.

In the A Story, Travis going off to college allows for Jules and Bobby to flex their respective parenting muscles in ways that create some really funny moments, but also some “awww” ones as well — without seeming too cheesy.

I know from personal experience that parents tend to get a little nutty once their children go off to college — particularly if it is an only child — so in that context, Jules’ more goofy acts like putting Travis on a motorcycle and driving fast so that he’ll hug her tightly work. It’s a heightened version of how children act, but it’s not so much so that it’s unbelievable.

And amid all that goofiness, the series can pull out really, really great moments like Bobby’s intense desire to learn about computers and the internet just so he can send emails to Travis while his son is off at college. But again, it flows within the context of the episode and though I hate to say this, Modern Family would probably make a big deal of it.

Moreover, “Let Yourself Go” is particularly strong because of its focus on Andy, Ellie and their son Stan. Whereas the characters often get to be the ridiculous comic relief even in a series full of that, here, they are in the middle of a really great and honest story about being new parents. See, the Torres’ never talk about their infant son because they don’t want to be the type of couple that does that, both because Andy once said it wasn’t sexy and because Ellie just generally take other people’s happiness.

But here, it’s quickly revealed that they don’t really feel like that anymore. It’s easy to be jaded with stories about babies until you actually have them. Andy’s past statements about the non-sexiness of those kind of women really sticks to Ellie because she doesn’t want to be thought of as that at her age. These are real feelings that someone her age and in her position would have.

Finally, the story works even better because it starts at such a stupid (in a good way) place: The creepy neighbor wrongly hears Ellie’s conversation and thinks that baby Stan is dead, so she and Andy milk that fake news to get the neighbor to cook and mow their lawn. It’s a funny gag, but one that organically moves into a heartfelt story, which is something I view as a strong move for a series that is growing ever-confident.

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