The awards show's fixation on the sitcom demonstrates that it still doesn't get comedy.
When the Emmy nominations were announced back in July, for the first time ever, none of the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series were from the four major broadcast networks. Cable channels have had a strong presence at the Emmys since at least the rise of The Sopranos, but the network shutout seemed to signal that the Emmys had abandoned their loyalty to traditional fare in favor of more diverse programming.
But the very organization—which gives out its awards Sunday night—allowed its comedy categories to continue to be dominated by old-school outlets. ABC's Modern Family was nominated 14 times, down from 17 a year ago but still formidable. The show's ubiquity is best illustrated in this year's "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series" contest, in which, for the second year in a row, four of the six nominees are from the series. The sitcom has essentially been playing a large-scale game of keep away with every other television comedy, hoarding scads of Emmys, multiple WGA Awards, and a Golden Globe after just three seasons. (To be fair, the show's lost all 13 Teen Choice Awards it's been up for, but watch your back, Vampire Diaries.)
Given those achievements, one would expect Modern Family to be the pinnacle of contemporary comedy, something that unites America through the power of laughter and defines an era the way Seinfeld and Cheers and M*A*S*H did in decades past. Yet those three shows, despite having been filmed many years ago, may ultimately be more modern than Modern Family, one of the most conventional series currently running despite its edgy-in-2003 mockumentary style.
Debuting in 2009, Modern Family presents the story of three interrelated families: one an older man, his much younger wife and their son; one a fairly standard nuclear family of five; and a gay couple and their adopted child. The underlying message that a family can be anything is certainly a positive one, but it's often expressed in a heavy-handed manner that feels like the sitcoms of yore rather than a product of today.
Modern Family seems to exist in a parallel universe where concepts like "irony" and "subtlety" don't exist; where of course gay characters are going to attend a Lady Gaga concert because, hello!; where saying something normal in a funny voice might be worth more than saying something funny in a normal voice; and where, hey, wouldn't it be something to have one nerdy daughter and one who loves the mall? In a cynical television world—have you seen TLC lately?—the show's earnestness could be viewed as refreshing, sure, and there's clearly a demographic who finds it highly appealing. But exactly what makes it superior to say, Louie, a once-in-a-lifetime work of art, is something that only award show voters may truly understand.
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While season two of Louie contained a story about the moral dilemma inherent in a friend planning to commit suicide, season three of Modern Family took the gang to Disneyland, where they (spoiler alert) learned a lesson about the true value of family.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against Modern Family is that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (on behalf of the Obamas as a whole) claim it as among their favorite shows. It would be worrisome enough if it was just coming from one of them—the entire point of a presidential candidate answering a question like that is to choose something as pleasantly inoffensive as possible—but the fact that both of them picked it, well, that's a Venn diagram of blandness from which nothing compelling can escape.