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Green Bay Press-Gazette

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cliches drag down otherwise funny "Modern Family"

Clueless dad trying to be the "cool guy"? Check. Passionate Latina trophy wife with a fiery temper? Check. Gay couple, with one flamboyant partner and one more reserved, apprehensive partner? Check.

Big laughs? Fortunately for ABC's new sitcom, "Modern Family," that's a check as well. Thanks to an online promotion by Entertainment Weekly, I was able to catch the pilot last week, and my response was favorable, if somewhat muted.

Shot in the same single-camera, documentary style as "The Office," "Modern Family" lacks some of that show's more biting, subtle humor, settling instead for broad and easy laughs. The show focuses on three seemingly disparate family units: Phil and Claire and their three brats; Mitchell and Cameron, a gay couple who has just adopted a Vietnamese baby; and Jay and Gloria, a May-December couple raising Gloria's son.

We're introduced to each of them, as they all take turns before the camera and talk about their lives. That interview technique was already tired before "The Office" drove it into the ground, and even that show has had the good sense to use it less and less. It's odd that "Modern Family's" creators felt the need to go this route, unless they were under the mistaken impression that the reason "The Office" is successful is purely due to its faux-doc format. (Played straight, however, they would have simply ended up with a clone of the superior and dearly missed "Sons and Daughters," which also ran on ABC back in 2006.)

Yet "Modern Family" has a lot going for it, particularly among its cast. "Boston Legal's" Julie Bowen (aka Jack's ex from "Lost") plays former bad-girl Claire, married to overgrown kid Phil (Ty Burrell, aping Steve Carell's brand of cluelessness.) They have two daughters -- one a tartlet whose adventures with boys makes up the majority of their family's screentime, and her younger sister who's basically a pint-sized Rachel Harris -- and a BB gun-toting son.

And yes, that's Ed O'Neill, back on TV as the cranky husband of the much-younger Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara (who was much better on the also superior and also dearly missed "Knights of Prosperity." Also ABC.) As great as it is to see Ed return to situation comedy, he largely sleepwalks through his role, and even a winking reference to his most beloved character (at one point he says to his family something to the effect of how they shouldn't listen to him, because everyone knows he's not the world's best father) can't snap him out of it. Mostly it's painful to watch him slouch around in a jogging suit, and more painful still when he decides the jogging suit makes him look old, and dresses like a rapper instead.

I did say there were funny parts, though, right? There are, like when Claire and Phil's sons shoots mini-Rachel Harris with his BB gun, and as punishment Claire tells Phil to shoot the boy as a lesson. (First they need to find time on the family's large, activity-filled white-board calendar.) Mitchell's efforts to rein in Cameron's flamboyantness in anticipation of a family get-together is amusing, and leads to the pilot's most laugh-out-loud moment: the perfect music that's played when the baby finally gets introduced to the extended family.

Yet even the way the show handles Mitchell and Cameron's relationship, let alone them as characters, feels outdated. Is a gay couple adopting a child really that shocking? Then why is Mitchell continuously on the defensive when they're bringing their baby home on the plane? One fellow passenger's comment, "Oh, look at that baby with the cream puffs," sends Mitchell into defiant speech-making, until of course Cameron points out that he's feeding the little girl a cream puff.

It's stuff like that that makes the show feel a little old, a little cliched, and far from "Modern."

"Modern Family" airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ABC.

-- Adam Reinhard,

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