Entertainment November 2011

Family Portrait

The secret of Modern Family’s runaway success: it’s just a sitcom.

Structurally, Modern Family is pseudo-vérité, reality-infected, chasing its characters around their kitchens like an episode of Supernanny or sitting them down for chats with a never-heard offscreen interviewer. (Phil: “Claire likes to say you can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. But I happen to believe that you can be both.”) This is “mockumentary,” a once-radical form—pioneered by This Is Spinal Tap, refined by Garry Shandling and Christopher Guest, and popularized by Ricky Gervais—that has degenerated into a kind of postmodern whimsy. You see it all over the place these days. Round and round goes the camera, the un-Steadicam, artfully wobbling and puckishly zooming. The lens is two-way: the characters, rich in lovable foibles, peep through it and smirk or snuffle at the viewer, as if there are no jokes anymore, but only a single enormous Joke with all of us inside it, like the town under Stephen King’s Dome. Silence now encases the sitcom, the lovely, corny crackle of the laugh track having vaporized into little bathetic air pockets and farts of anticlimax. Enough, I say. This burlesque of naturalism has depleted us. Give me the honest joinery of The George Lopez Show, the fat gags and the cackles on demand, over Parks and Recreation or NBC’s ghastly version of The Office. Who knew irony could be so cloying?

In the case of Modern Family, however, it must be acknowledged that the trick, or bag of tricks, works. It works spectacularly. The American family circa 2011 is, after all, an acutely self-conscious and self-interrogating unit: How does one “parent”? Who does what, which “role”? Is Dad sufficiently dad-like and Mom enough of a mom? And what if there are two dads, or two moms, or half- or step-siblings? Should someone be wearing the trousers? Are there trousers? Etc. The dishwasher drone of domesticity has turned into free jazz. Modern Family taps right into all this, the cameras that lurch through its three households producing the sensation of a wild and shaky experiment, recorded for purposes educational or scientific.

As to the politics of the show, I’ve concluded that there are none. I had to think about it, though. The rich older guy and his trophy wife. The gay couple accessorizing with an Asian baby. The ball-broken middle-class dad who calls his son “buddy.” Seen with a darkened or unloving eye, aren’t these the paradigms of familial collapse? The gays are so gay, and Gloria so Hispanic-bosomatic—surely Modern Family is simply a reactionary caricature? Or if not, then a slippery manifesto for tolerance, with all those cheesy lectures and learning curves, that sentimentally struck guitar? It has to be normative, prescriptive, something: it’s called Modern Family, for God’s sake. But sitcom is confinement, whether in the floating apartments of Seinfeld or the dormitories of Hogan’s Heroes. And family—modern, un‑modern—is simply the situation of all situations. The characters in Modern Family are vividly particular and beautifully rendered; they have what network execs used to call “relevance.” But the main thing about them is that they’re not going anywhere: restless or reconciled, they’re all held nicely in the frayed and tingling bonds of love.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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