Family matters: ABC's "Modern" is the funniest show on TV
Now, I know what you're thinking, valued blog reader. What about "30 Rock" and all those Emmy awards? What about "The Office" finally shedding all that relationship drama and re-emphasizing goofy workplace antics? What about "Hannity" and the gut-busting patriotic debate that stems from "The Great American Panel?"
Still, there's something about "Modern Family" that breaks the mold when it comes to TV comedy these days. It's refreshingly normal.
Unlike edgier comedies that have earned critical raves these past few years, "Modern Family" isn't intentionally wacky ("30 Rock"), subversive ("Arrested Development"), or in-your-face ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"). Instead, it relies on classic plot conventions with a heavy dose of heart.
It can also be sharp and clever in unexpected ways. For instance, "Modern's" funniest bit -- and perhaps this is just because I'm an '80s one-hit wonder buff -- came courtesy of an inspired cameo by Edward Norton as Izzy LaFontaine, bassist and backup vocalist for Spandau Ballet, two episodes ago.
The premise was pretty straightforward: Phil (Ty Burrell) is great at giving anniversary gifts. His wife, Claire (Julie Bowen) is not. In order to make up for this deficiency, Claire tracks down Izzy in the phone book thinking Spandau Ballet's "True" was the song that played on the radio when she and Phil shared their first kiss. Turns out, Phil's heart-melting number is actually "If You Leave" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (which Izzy astutely and frustratingly points out is a break-up song), and well, hilarity ensues from there as Norton (with a great British accent) accuses Phil of being a phony "Fandau" while delivering witty exchanges about B-sides and warlock album covers.
Now, that's just one bit, and believe me, it doesn't tell the entire story of "Modern Family." In fact, that's some pretty obscure humor right there, so I'd understand if you weren't champing at the bit to watch this show based on Spandau Ballet riffs.
But there are so many other things I love about "Modern Family," particularly well-rounded, well-meaning characters like Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Jay (Ed O'Neill) and Phil. Billed early on as an "Arrested Development"-style clone, "Modern Family" doesn't share the same tone or mission as "AD." As much as I love those crazy Bluths, that's a good thing here.
The characters on "Modern Family" are all good, decent human beings with normal flaws and foibles. Sure, it amps up the archetypes in a so-called modern family -- gay couple with a recently adopted baby, well-off patriarch with a Colombian trophy wife and coffee-drinking son, yin/yang husband-wife with three disparate kids. But everyone is likable, relatable and strives to do nothing more than make amends with a family of distinct personalities united through marriage. Even Phil, who might annoy viewers as a sort of "Michael Scott lite" with his attempts to always be the cool dad, is harmless and well-intentioned. How can you argue with a guy who loves roller coasters, has seen "Ghostbusters" seven times and regularly drives through neighborhoods that have only recently been gentrified?
Other characters have similar idiosyncrasies that the show's writers constantly fall back on, but never abuse to the point that it would make viewers turn on them (like, for instance, Michael Scott.) Manny's mind is too old for his body; Haley is superficial and boy crazy; Cameron is overly dramatic and a trained clown (?); Mitchell is safe and self-conscious, so on and so forth.
Since the cameras are never addressed, the mockumentary format also works really well within the show. Like any reality program that gives its cast a confessional booth in front of the camera, it merely provides characters a chance to embellish on the plot as its happening. And while I thought early on it could be a crutch, the camera doesn't serve as a character like the purported Dunder Mifflin documentary crew. Instead, it's just a clever, easy way to present more jokes to the viewer.
Above all though, there's an underlying sweetness to the show that gives me hope about the future of network comedies. Latest episode "Fizbo," in particular, took a pretty standard plot convention -- a boy's birthday party -- and turned it into a clever "who is in the hospital" scenario by presenting multiple plot arcs that promised disaster. That it turned out to be nothing more than a broken arm by birthday boy Luke (after taking a spill on beads at his mom's lame craft table) was a genius touch that poured on just enough sugar without making it too cloying. Luke, whose birthday always gets lost in the holiday shuffle, got the best gift he could have asked for -- a smelly cast that made him the center of attention. And in the end, no one really got hurt and the family came together with cake in the hospital waiting room. Awwwww.
"Modern Family" isn't trying to be anything but a great comedy that all ages and all walks of life can enjoy. It's smart, funny and not the least bit mean-spirited. Hard to believe, but that's a rarity on TV these days.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org
Labels: Modern Family