ABC's new Wednesday night sitcom Modern Family is pulling off a feat few shows do in their freshman seasons-it is scoring big with both viewers and critics. Centered on three related families in southern California, it has become the most-watched new comedy of the fall.
Speculating on the cause of the show's success, executive producer Steve Levitan noted, "I think that people were ready for a show that was not just hopefully smart and funny but also has heart and a warm tone." While Levitan's right that his product is frequently funny and slightly less frequently smart, how warm its tone is and how much heart it has is a matter for debate. In some ways Modern Family is so reflective of where many American families find themselves these days, much of the humor stems from the audience recognizing some of the mistrust and isolation present in their own marital and parental relationships.
Take, for example Phil (Ty Burrell), Claire (Julie Bowen), and their three children. Clearly set forth as the most traditional household of the three, self-described "cool dad" Phil has a serious wandering eye that accounts for many jokes. He fawns over his bombshell sister-in-law, drools over a busty neighbor, and is caught with porn on his computer. Understandably, Claire expresses annoyance at her husband's behavior but doesn't reveal much hurt. Instead she throws herself into motherhood and does a poor job concealing the contempt she often feels for her husband, as in one scene in which she tells the camera about their teenage daughter: "If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half-naked, I've done my job." "Our job," her husband corrects her. Claire concurs, "our job," but her glance at him suggests she doesn't think much of his contribution. A running gag in a later episode has Claire confiding her feelings of frustration to a 10-year-old because she has no one else she can talk to.
Is this an authentic portrait of many modern marriages? Who could argue that it's not? In a world filled with hypersexualized images, few husbands still see a bit of ogling and pornography viewing as the betrayals that they are. And our culture is full of women shouldering most of the parenting responsibilities.
Claire's father Jay (Ed O'Neill) and his much-younger wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) represent the blended family faction. While the pair display more attraction to one another than Phil and Claire, Jay struggles with seeing his stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez) as an intrusion, and Gloria feels torn between them. Jay and Gloria may present an exaggerated picture, but the tension that ratchets up between Jay and Manny as the boy relates worshipful anecdotes about his "real dad" is certainly credible enough.
However, there is one couple on the show that, while they have their issues, portray a relationship built on true partnership and affection: gay partners Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). With their adopted daughter, Lily, the picture they present is quite different from the mincing, flamboyant stereotype shows like Will and Grace featured in the past, and the conflicts they find themselves in are relatable and funny. Almost none of the sexual innuendo jokes that lace the other storylines touch Cameron and Mitchell; instead they are more in the old sitcom tradition of poking gentle fun at one another. In fact, they were the couple my husband and I most identified with, and very little about their storyline would need to be altered were one of the characters recast as a woman and the couple rewritten as straight.
Whether Modern Family offers appropriate family entertainment is an easy question to answer: It doesn't. What is less easy to answer, given the notes of humor that are ringing true with viewers, is how do believers reach out to these various families in all their frustration and loneliness that is amusing on TV, but not so amusing in real life?