When Modern Family debuted in 2009, it drew notice for bringing two non-traditional families to network primetime alongside the familiar heterosexual, nuclear family. There were two gay men with an adopted daughter, and an interracial couple whose members were both on their second marriages. Both kinds of arrangement are increasingly common in America, so it seemed like a big deal that they had found their way to the same family sitcom, a format that has long wavered between reflecting and policing our nation's self-image.
There was also a third, less talked-about element to the unorthodox nature of Modern Family's characters. Jay and Gloria are not just interracial but intergenerational. Gloria, a Colombian, is much younger (and several times more attractive) than her affluent, white husband, Jay.
Of course, the May-December romance—unlike, say, gay or interracial marriage—has been legally sanctioned throughout U.S. history and socially accepted to varying extents elsewhere depending on the time period and the culture. Still, today, these marriages often have a sketchy reputation. The stereotype suggests a union made not for love or mutual admiration but one in which an older man leverages money or power or fame to satisfy his lust with a young, hot, opportunistic bride.
But though many people glance skeptically at May-December romances, they also tolerate them—the careers of Woody Allen, Hugh Hefner, Paul McCartney, and Demi Moore seem to be doing fine. These unions maintain a small but significant presence in modern America. Three percent of U.S. married couples are separated by 15 or more years, according to 2008 U.S. Census Bureau data. (In the large majority of them, the husband is the older one.)
So Modern Family’s depiction of Jay and Gloria's relationship as loving and mutually affectionate feels new. Their demographic profile is familiar, but the no-big-deal sympathy with which it is treated isn't. And yet, there’s something that has started to bother critics about Modern Family over the years: a sneaking sense that the show isn’t so "modern" after all, that it takes a diverse set of non-traditional couples and puts them in traditional molds. That's revolutionary in its way, but also limiting: Emphasizing that their marriage is "normal" can err toward overlooking what might make their marriage challenging. Only occasionally does the show probe Jay and Gloria’s age gap. Gloria learns that Jay's daughter Claire once called her a gold-digger, for instance. But these conflicts resolve themselves by episode's end. It takes 22 minutes, for instance, for Claire to set aside any lingering concerns she had with her father marrying a woman her own age.
Modern Family's treatment of both their ex-spouses, and particularly Jay's ex-wife DeDe (played by Shelley Long), is particularly frustrating. Despite the fact that DeDe was wife to Jay and mother to two other central characters, Mitch and Claire, she appears infrequently and is written off as crazy and jealous of her husband's new wife. Gloria's ex-husband only drops in occasionally, affecting her relationship with Jay very little.
Elsewhere on ABC's lineup, though, is a more nuanced look at the quirks of intergenerational marriage. When Trophy Wife debuted this fall to mainly positive reviews, many a critic drew the parallel to its network big sibling: Like Modern Family, it depicts three prongs of a non-traditional family dealing with the mostly traditional problems of upper class suburban California. Modern Family had already spawned plenty of wannabes in the form of short-lived sitcoms, like The New Normal, that focus on gay male relationships in a way similar to ABC’s Emmy-dominating flagship comedy. But Trophy Wife is filling in the complexity gaps left open not by Mitch and Cam (though there are many) but by Jay and Gloria—and it’s doing a pretty good job of it.
The show stars Malin Åkerman as Kate Harrison, newly married to an older, successful lawyer, Pete Harrison (Bradley Whitford). Pete has three kids with two ex-wives. Both of them, unlike Modern Family's exes, remain amicably involved in childrearing with him. And so, Kate must navigate her complicated relationships with Pete's past marriages; to the show’s credit, the messiness of those relationships doesn’t dissipate at the end of each episode.
The title "Trophy Wife" is misleadingly pejorative, as it refers to a character who’s played sympathetically. But it's not random. Kate has to fight against that label not just with viewers, but with the show's other characters. Unlike Jay's first wife, both of Pete's exes receive fairly respectful treatment, too. Marcia Gay Harden's icy Dr. Diane Buckley is an Olympic athlete and successful surgeon. The show avoids a tired trope by depicting her not as jealous, but just dismissive of her ex-husband's beautiful, young new wife. Wife No. 2, Jackie Fisher, played by Michaela Watkins, is a kooky new ager, who mostly avoids crossing the line into the cartoonish. She shares with Pete the duty of parenting their younger son, Burt. She, too, seems unconcerned with Kate's presence.
Like in Modern Family, Kate and Pete's marriage faces a lot of average suburban problems—awkward parent teacher conferences and rebellious children, for example. The pilot didn’t give a great sense of the central relationship, but as time has gone on we see them unite against society’s perception of their union. A flashback episode showing Pete and Kate's meet-cute dispels any concern that the twice-divorced Pete is a creep.
Other plot lines acknowledge that Kate and Pete don't have the simplest relationship, and that being in a modern family presents modern issues, different at times from those that face Phil and Claire Dunphy. One episode, "The Breakup" shows Kate's best friend hijacking the couple's quiet movie night to unwind after a frivolous fight with her boyfriend of two months. Pete excuses himself as the two women drink margaritas, eat one of Pete's kids' science projects, and appear visibly hungover as they send the children to school the next morning. "Halloween" features Pete stuck doing his imperious first wife's bidding at a school event she's running, even as Kate demands that he stand up to her.
Trophy Wife’s still working out some first-season kinks, so its comedy can feel uneven. But Kate and Pete are, at the least, well-developed and interesting to watch. Before Modern Family and Trophy Wife, TV and film offered us present-day May-December plot lines infrequently and mainly as a punchline or an insurmountable obstacle. (The sense of oddness comes even quicker when older women are involved. Harold and Maude and Arrested Development's Lucille and Buster come to mind.) So it’s nice to see a show that probes their situation for comedy in a way that has us laughing with and not at the couple in question. It is, if nothing else, an imitator that has found something new to say.