Wasted potential: On frustrations with Modern Family

The Modern Family pilot is the best comedy pilot of the last five years. It is one of the only great comedy pilots we have seen in that time and this probably holds true going back even further (the only thing I can really think of is the Arrested Development pilot). On a personal note, the episode is one of my favorite episodes of television comedy ever.

All those things make right now so frustrating because I am definitely ready to say this with no reservations: Modern Family is not good. Some weeks, like this week, Modern Family is teetering on outright terrible. Clearly the series doesn’t have the same kind of ambition that legitimately great comedies such as Community and Parks and Recreation have (which is something I’ll get back to), but at this point, Modern Family can barely string together an episode without devolving into hackneyed clichés, bad physical humor and turning its characters into unlikable shrills. It makes sense that the series is growing in popularity because Modern Family is now more like The Big Bang Theory than The Office.

The truth is, I’ve personally be disappointed with Modern Family since season one. Because I hold the pilot in such high regard, I found myself unfortunately comparing subsequent episodes to it and that didn’t work out too well for my perception of the series. However, I still liked the first season quite a bit because it mixed real big laughs with some moderately engaging stories about what it is like to be part of a “modern family.” The series didn’t have these sweeping thematic interests, but there was a sense that the writing staff did want to spotlight the (humorous) challenges facing families, primary and extended, today. Last season pretty much dropped any interest in that kind of storytelling, replacing it with obvious sitcom tropes and plots. And now this season has taken the descent even further.

This is a mainstream television comedy so there’s no requirement for the characters to be overly complex or complicated, but Modern Family’s treatment of most of its cast is perhaps the most disappointing change of all. This season, Gloria is dramatically dumber than she was in any other episode in the prior seasons and Jay barely has anything to do but sigh and laugh at her stupidity.* Cameron and Mitchell have been the most negatively impacted by the series’ rapid decline in quality, as they’ve quickly gone from the most charming, loving element of the series to the most annoying and jarring part.

*Last night’s episode was a slight improvement on this front, but of course the conclusion of their story involved Gloria using her breasts to make something happen. Progress?

Sofia Vergara, Ed O’Neill, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are all so good that their performances sometimes make up for the terrible writing and rote situations they are put in, but I am reaching a point where I can’t even give them the benefit of the doubt anymore. Ultimately, Modern Family has become the Dunphy Show, which isn’t totally awful because Ty Burrell is fantastic as Phil, Julie Bowen has grown into her role nicely and all three of the kids are rock-solid comedic performers. But Modern Family isn’t supposed to be the Dunphy Show and I thought the whole hook of the series is that it displayed non-traditional families? Thus, making the traditional family so dominant is both problematic from a character standpoint and a larger thematic one.

I’m clearly disappointed with Modern Family. I’m growing to hate it. And most of my feelings stem from a standard of quality the pilot and some season one episodes suggested the series could reach on a regular basis. But obviously, Steve Levitan and his writing staff cannot reach that standard or really have no interest to do so because the series is so damn popular anyway. So who is really to blame here? The series’ writers for writing what I view have been mediocre to bad scripts? Or is this on me for expecting too much of a series that never really wanted to be what I thought it wanted to be?

Before you answer that, let me say this: Shouldn’t we hold all television to a certain level of quality? Shouldn’t we want it to all be great?* Not every series is going to reach the pantheon of television complexity and quality, I know that. However, I would like to think that every series and its production team should at least try to be as good as it could possibly be. I would personally prefer every series to try so hard they fail miserably and hilariously than just churn out a slog of B-/C+ episodes for the duration of their existence. And this is particularly true for a series like Modern Family that started out so masterfully.

*On a related note, I feel similarly about comedies and their ability to be more than funny. I know that the primary directive for a sitcom is to make people laugh, but turning the actors into joke-delivery systems and disallowing them from bringing a real, complicated persona to life is a damn shame. Making people laugh is a lovely thing. However, there’s no reason that a script has to destroy characters or relationships just to get a chuckle out of the audience. This is the primary reason I hate Big Bang Theory: The series has failed to convince me why those people like one another or would continue to hang out with one another. Modern Family hasn’t reached that point yet, but I’m scared it could happen.

There are definitely different “levels” of greatness and quality. Modern Family is never going to be great in the same way that Community or Parks are, no matter how hard it tries. Heck, I would argue that Parks won’t ever be great exactly like Community is and vice versa. I don’t want all comedies to be exactly the same. Nevertheless, Modern Family has the opportunity to be a dynamic representation of the family in the 21st century and also to poke fun at the traditions and tropes of the family sitcom form. Unfortunately, the series would rather be “just fine” and collect all its damn Emmy trophies for the next six years, thank you very much.

I guess I should just be happy that there are series, especially comedies, out there that are willing to take some risks and push the form further. Community, Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny and even things like Raising Hope or Archer are always up to something. Television comedy is damn good right now and it will continue to be so even with Modern Family sucking up the joint. All that wasted potential makes me sad, though.

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