In Praise of Julie Bowen and Her 'Modern Family' Marriage

The actress has come into her own as stressed-out mom Claire Dunphy, especially in this week's episode.



Way back in 1996, Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore fell for Virginia Venit, a PGA tour official with a penchant for white sweaters. A scant 14 years later, after appearances on ER, Boston Legal, Weeds, LOST, and a regular role on the underrated sitcom Ed, Julie Bowen became a star when she landed the part of Claire Dunphy on ABC's hit sitcom, Modern Family. On last night's episode, "Regrets Only," she showed why, giving a performance that ran virtually the entire gamut of human emotions, from unbridled rage to orgasmic joy. Most dramatic film roles don't demand the kind of range that Bowen needed—and showed—in a half-hour sitcom.

The performance also answered a nagging question about the relationship at the heart of Modern Family. Namely: Why, exactly, does the Claire and Phil Dunphy marriage work?

From the outside, certainly, they can look like a disaster. You've got to wonder about any couple that so consistently and spectacularly screws up Valentine's Day. Besides, they just don't seem to mesh. Phil is more than a little goofy, and while he's a decent-looking guy, he's no Matt Dillon. Claire, on the other hand, is a knockout, and the first impression the audience got about the show was that Phil had married very, very well.

Then again, Phil Dunphy is a sweet man. He's a good father and caring husband, schoolboy infatuation with his step-mom-in-law notwithstanding. He deserves someone just as sweet in return. Knockout or not, Claire is more than a little controlling. She also has a nasty temper, as she showed last night, flying into a rage and storming out of the house—for a supremely elegant bit of physical comedy—without even bothering to say why she was mad.

When Phil finally does find out, though, the marriage at the center of Modern Family suddenly makes sense.

Claire wasn't upset with Phil's forgetfulness, or because he criticized her driving. It wasn't one of those typically sitcom-ish reasons why the typically shrewish sitcom wife gets mad at her typically bumbling husband. Claire was upset because she thought Phil didn't care about her opinion—on books, movies, music, and particularly the delights of a wedge salad.

At Cameron's harp recital, when Phil finally convinces Claire that he does care—and that he knows he'd be a mess without her—we get to see a makeup scene that's as subtle and authentic as a scripted TV show can get. We saw two flawed people, perfectly aware of their own flaws, and perfectly aware of their spouse's flaws, yet also aware that those flaws are what make them a perfect fit. You couldn't ask for a better definition of modern love.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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