March 4th, 2010
I understand sitcom formulas: I know why they exist, I know why they can sometimes be very funny, and I understand why there are quite a few viewers who are in love with them. And while I’m on the record as amongst those who are not quite on the Modern Family bandwagon, I respect a lot of what the show is doing, and do not begrudge it for being formulaic to varying degrees each week.
If I’m being honest, “Fears” was one of the best episodes the show has done in its most limiting formula, the separation of the three families into distinct stories. The theme was consistent, the comedy was varied, and the show perhaps came the closest yet to earning its saccharine conclusion. None of the stories fell too far into comic farce to feel like they were shoehorned into the corny conclusion, and while every story was on the edge of tipping into that land of love and caring that makes me want to throw up, they mostly stayed within something funny and sweet without going too far.
And yes, that’s the most convoluted way of saying “this was a pretty good episode of Modern Family” you’re likely to find.
“My Funky Valentine”
“When a Kid Goes Bad”
February 10th, 2010
When a sitcom does a special “holiday” episode, especially in its first season, it’s the ultimate test of the show’s understanding of its character dynamics. For some shows, the show adapts to fit the holiday, while in others the holiday adapts to fit the show: it’s a subtle difference, and both can create entertaining episodes, but I tend to prefer the latter for two key reasons.
The first is that I kind of resent that holidays actually change people. There’s always that sense that holidays are supposed to change people, that in some way the days are “different” than others, but at the core of any real relationship is a bond which should exist whether corporations have decided that people should exchange gifts or eat chocolates on a particular day. So I want a holiday to feel as if it is being filtered through a particular show, rather than that the characters are in some way conforming to the traditions therein.
The second reason is that I find episodes where the show adapts to fit the holiday reinforce the most annoying elements of sitcom structures. Whatever adaptation happens isn’t going to last, and when it’s related to a particular holiday that structure becomes that much more transparent. Yes, every sitcom has episodes where new conflicts arise based on a particular impulse, but when it’s a holiday it feels particularly inorganic.
I make these points as a way to contextualize my (relative) annoyance with tonight’s Modern Family and my enjoyment of tonight’s Cougar Town, despite the fact that it was neither the worst nor best night, respectively, for the two series.
“Not in My House”
January 13th, 2010
Sometimes, when I write something particularly critical show about a particular show, I wonder if people think I’m difficult to please. Because, while I may be deluding myself, I think I’m actually quite easy to please. I might be very particular about what I want from a show like Modern Family, which I feel isn’t living up to its potential, but that doesn’t mean that when it actually happens I’m just going to find something new to complain about. When a show listens to me like Microsoft listened to all of those annoying people in Windows 7 commercials and does exactly what I tell them to, it’s pretty much enough for me to ignore any other problems and sing from the rafters.
So while I do, yes, have some issues with “Not in My House,” which isn’t as riotous as the show has been in the past, the fact that two of the families interacted in an entirely natural, non-dysfunctional fashion without the show imploding into contrivance demonstrates how this should happen more often. It’s my Windows 7 moment, and it was enough to elevate this far above last week’s episode for me.
Oh, plus it has a Dog Butler. I would NEVER complain about a Dog Butler.
“Up All Night”
January 6th, 2010
For a show that likes to wrap up each episode with a lesson that defines the show’s themes, I’m somewhat disappointed that Modern Family seems to be unable to learn lessons based on the first part of its season. Now, don’t get me wrong: the show is still early in its run, so I’m not expecting the show to have ironed out all of its problems. However, for a show that is often considered such a “well-crafted” comedy (a quality that I would not challenge in terms of the show’s best episodes/scenes), there’s a point where some fairly serious structural issues are coming to the surface for me as an audience member, and I’m concerned that the level of critical praise for the series will keep them from investigating these problems further so long as the ratings stay strong.
So when episodes like “Up All Night” seem particularly flat, I want the writers to notice that it’s because they separated the families, and that as a result one story felt like an extended comedy sketch, another felt like a series of comedy sketches, and the other rested on its laurels due to the presence of the week’s guest star. There were some token efforts to tie the three stories together, but in the end the show told three stories that felt like they were only firing on one cylinder.
And while, as always, the show is capable of being quite funny on occasion, there are episodes like this one which indicate that the writers aren’t willing to go the extra mile to push the boundaries of their characters or their situations each week. And the Modern Family we see in “Up All Night” is not the show at its finest, and I have to wonder if the creators will bother to recognize that so long as the show remains an “unqualified” success.
“Here Comes My Girl”
November 25th, 2009
Thanksgiving is a holiday about family, which when deployed in television does one of three things. The first is to emphasize the cohesiveness of a particular group of characters who work seamlessly when brought into the same setting. The second is to emphasize the sheer chaos that results from the show’s personalities coming together, to either comic or dramatic purposes. The third, meanwhile, is to demonstrate that the show is a convoluted mess where bringing the characters together is a futile exercise that will fail to provide interesting television.
What’s helpful for ABC’s 9pm comedies is that both of them have built their identity around the idea of family, to the point where bringing the gang together is like second nature to the two shows. Cougar Town has really started to charm me as of late, and “Here Comes My Girl” is yet another fine episode that brings together this group of individuals into a family of sorts that’s just an enormous amount of fun to watch bounce off of each other. And “Fizbo” is perhaps my favourite Modern Family episode yet, taking advantage of the chaos at the heart of this family and bringing things to a satisfying (and also sort of sweet) conclusion.
It made for a really comforting hour of television comedy, which is what the timeslot has been providing (on average) all season.
November 18th, 2009
In terms of the great comedy battle of 2009, which continues to rage amongst shows both new and old, Modern Family is at a distinct disadvantage: with Parks and Recreation delivering some legitimately great comedy and Community doing a really compelling and confident meta-storyline, the simplicity of this show is a disadvantage in terms of being flashy. There comes a point where the hype surrounding the show creates greater expectations than the storylines themselves can live up to in terms of their premise, requiring viewers to appreciate the strong execution where originality isn’t overtly present.
“Great Expectations” is a solid episode of the show, featuring a number of fun loving gags and a couple of big guest stars, but nothing stands out as particularly stunning as compared to some of the other comedies. In this instance, I think there was enough nuance to each individual story to continue to prove how strong the writers understand these characters, but it nonetheless follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s one of their stronger episodes due to a nice role reversal, but it’s not reaching as high as some of the other comedies are right now.
November 4th, 2009
I have mentioned on numerous occasions that I love the interaction that Twitter creates between critics regarding various TV shows, and today was a fine example of that. A single comment from Alan Sepinwall that Parks and Recreation could be the best comedy currently on the air resulted in a wealth of comments, some of which defended Modern Family as, well, the best comedy currently on the air. This resulted in a conversation between myself, Matt Roush and James Poniewozik about ABC’s new hit comedy, in particular the sense of “warmth” that has defined the show in its early episodes.
My argument is that the show has been TOO defined by that warmth to the point where it’s become expected. Part of what made the pilot stand out was that it went from a traditional sitcom (with the various family settings) to a simultaneously absurd (Lion King, anyone?) and heartwarming (Jay coming to terms with his new grandchild) conclusion. However, a lot of the episodes since that point have done exactly the same thing, and while the absurd has remained pretty strong due to some great performances the warmth has begun to wear thin for me. It’s not that I don’t think the warmth is an important part of the show’s identity, but rather that when it presents the same way every single time.
“En Garde” is an enjoyable episode that has some nicely absurd moments and some nice subtle comedy, but the conclusion feels forced in a way that could just be the show’s shtick but also seems to me to be simplifying the show’s formula to a fault.
“Run For Your Wife”
October 28th, 2009
Last week, I noted that there were elements of the episode that felt like post-pilot syndrome, re-establishing existing traits in a way that indicated the episode was intended to air earlier in the season. And, this week, the same experience repeats itself: “Run for the Wife” plays like the show’s second episode, ending with an emotional beat which confirms while subtly expanding the pilot’s message, its character beats feeling like the pilot on repeat more than anything new or particularly inventive.
What separates the two episodes is that last week’s was an epic family event that brought everyone together, while this week very clearly delineated the three storylines based on the couples (with only a phone call to connect them). And while the show gets some really enjoyable broad humour from those get-togethers, when playing out of order these isolated stories play somewhat better, where you don’t need to worry about adding up what we know about the ways the characters interact and can just enjoy them acting as we expect them to.
It makes for less conflict and perhaps a less unique setup, but part of me was able to enjoy the episode somewhat more as a result.
October 21st, 2009
Modern Family has thus far proven itself to be an extremely well-executed sitcom, but one that isn’t really doing anything particularly innovative. Its pilot established a really fun integrated family setting, with three separate families having their own idiosyncrasies and then exploding into all-out chaos when they come together. Episodes like last week’s indicated that the show is strong enough to be able to bring in a guest star and not have it disrupt the show’s rhythms.
However, “Coal Digger” is the kind of episode that demonstrates one of the show’s key problems, in that the elements that make the show stand out (like Ty Burrell’s hilarious Phil, or Eric Stonestreet’s loveable Cam) are being used in the same fashion each and every week to the point of growing repetitive. It isn’t that the episode doesn’t try anything new, placing Gloria and Claire at each other’s throats over both recent and long-standing issues, but rather that the way the episode is structured feels too rote at this stage, and the characters that usually elevate that material are beginning to feel not so much tired as perhaps a bit overexposed.
I’m not suggesting that the show is falling apart of anything, but after a week where it really branched out into something new for it to return to the same old structure feels a bit out of place.
October 14th, 2009
This is going to see like a really weird connection, but one of the things that I found really interesting about The CW’s Privileged was how quickly it dealt with its built-in back story. The show was dealing with an estranged mother and a distant father in its central protagonist, and it got both out of the way quickly…in fact, perhaps too quickly. The show never quite felt as purposeful when it moved past those interesting dynamics, and while they were important parts of its early identity it seemed like they could have been burned off more slowly to heighten their impact.
However, Modern Family makes an enormously compelling argument for getting back story out of the way, or at the very least the value of back story in the early stages of a sitcom’s development in particular. While the show is essentially checking off a list of recurring character we’ve yet to see (Benjamin Bratt was just cast as Gloria’s ex, for example), the seamless integration of Long into the cast only brings out more of our characters, and the way the episode depicts a past “Incident” is a hilarious piece of back story that does nothing to diminish what could be introduced with time. On a drama, a character like Long evokes the same kind of emotions each time she returns, and the show can only go there so many times. On a sitcom, however, as long as things remain funny and as long as a diverse set of characters are involved, you can keep on bringing her back with minimal loss of comic value.
And considering where this episode starts off at on that front, DeDe could be a funny recurring player on the show for seasons to come.