Family Portrait

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

When the Writers Guild of America, earlier this year, awarded ABC’s Modern Family its prize for best comedy series and 14 writers trooped writer-ishly forward to accept their statuette, the only surprise was that there were not 28 of them. Or 56. No solitary creator comes up with the four chuckles a minute, the quick-fire ensemble work, the story line wound on spindles of plot/subplot and unspooling tautly toward a belly-laugh denouement that is the hit sitcom. Write sonnets on your own: for sitcom you need a think tank, a brain trust, a conclave of comedy boffins. (The story is told, perhaps apocryphally, of a man on the Cheers team whose sole function was to take an already finished script and cram in three more jokes.)

Life is short, but sitcom is shorter. And Modern Family—currently enjoying its third season—is a bit of a master class in pace and brevity. So brassily succinct is the theme tune (11 seconds) that at the WGA ceremony, it had to be played three times before any of the writers could make it to the stage. The title is bald and declarative, in the modern manner. (The Cosby Show, if they made it today, would be called Black Family; Cheers, perhaps, Men Drinking.) And the writing is vorsprung durch technik: hectically compressed but dramatically elegant, prodigal in its zingers and snorters but austere in its construction. One feels one should be taking notes.

The show concerns itself, as advertised, with a modern family—in this case the extended brood of Jay Pritchett, a wisecracking suburban patriarch with a preposterously hot second wife, Gloria. Jay’s daughter, Claire, has a husband, Phil, and three children; Jay’s son, Mitchell, is gay, living with his partner, Cameron, and their adopted Vietnamese baby, Lily. Within this tripartite system, the family members judge one another, infuriate one another, and love one another in brisk 21-minute arcs. If “No hugging, no learning” was the watchword on the Seinfeld set, then Modern Family is a Black Mass of teachable moments: quite often, 30 seconds before the credits, a guitar will strike up, bongos will shuffle, and someone will start reflecting in voice-over about never taking your family for granted, or what it means to be a father. “Maybe we are the way we are because of the people we’re with. Or maybe we just pick the people we need …” Speaking for myself, by this point I’ve generally been so perforated by punch lines that I start weeping like a sieve at the rightness and family-ness and goddamn American beauty of it all.

Because—and here’s the thing—Modern Family is very, very funny, almost ruthlessly so. Jay Pritchett is played by Ed O’Neill, a brilliantly slow-moving performer whose superior gravity bends every scene toward him. There’s a touch of Bill Murray about O’Neill—that glum, soiled face, that density of experience. Returning an abandoned French bulldog to its owner in a sketchy part of town, he speaks to the animal with gruff fellow feeling: “No place to go but up, huh?” The dog cocks its head in mute entreaty. “Don’t look at me like that. We all got problems.” (He ends up taking the dog home.) Jay’s wife, Gloria, is played—overplayed, ultra-played—by Sofia Vergara, a fantastic apparition of hair gloss, humming body tone, and Colombian italics. (Replying to Jay, after one of his drolleries: “You’re too fun‑ny. I’m going to share that one with my next husband when we’re spending all your money.”) Also resident in Jay’s McManse, solemnly sipping his coffee, is Manny, Gloria’s preteen son from her first marriage: the orchid-house only child, a professorial dumpling. The Jay/Manny nexus, between man-boy and boy-man, is one of the show’s most reliable laugh lodes.

Close by the Pritchetts, noisily, are the Dunphys—Claire and Phil and the three kids, their household ever rushing to the microwave-bleep of overscheduled middle-classness. Claire is sharp-tongued and savagely fit, her forearms roped with high-tensile veins. Phil is goofy, childish, occasionally simpering, pathologically conflict-averse. (To Claire: “I don’t find you insensitive, I find you delightful. Do you find me delightful?”) Then there are the gay partners, Mitchell and Cameron. Mitchell is a twitchy redhead. Cameron is larger—he used to play football for the University of Illinois—but softer: breast-like and enveloping in his flowery shirts. The bickering and banter between these two proceeds at a very high level—an empyrean of gay repartee. In the first two seasons, baby Lily would simply look on, wordless and doleful-eyed: the best straight man on television.

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.