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.
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.
Modern Family is not a bad TV show. That would be a ridiculous claim in a world that has been terrorized by oppressively bad sitcoms (Work It, about two guys who dress up as women to get better jobs,was a real thing that was on TV this year, not 30 years ago). Yet the extent of its Emmy success is a curiosity, especially given the show's increasingly tepid critical reaction over the past season. Louie was nominated for three Emmys this year, but left out of the running for Outstanding Comedy Series. Community, which balances laughs and warmth in a far less treacly manner than Modern Family, got one writing nomination, the first Emmy notice in the show's three-year history. Nick Offerman's iconic portrayal of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation? No room for him with all those Modern Family dudes getting Outstanding Supporting Actor nods.