Series Premiere: Modern Family – “Pilot”

modernfamilytitle

“Pilot”

September 23rd, 2009

There has been a pretty impressive critical consensus that Modern Family is pretty darn good. While Glee might be creating the most enthusiastic response amongst fans, and Community appeals to particular senses of humour more, Modern Family has been the one pilot that nearly everyone has considered well-made, well-cast, and just all around kind of great. It’s also one pilot that I wasn’t able to see in advance, which meant that I went in with that always awkward sense that I was almost required to love the show. Expectations were higher than perhaps any other show, and the result could easily have been a sense that this had all been overhyped, and that it was all for naught.

But, as hard as the critics have tried to potentially ruin this experience, and the clips I saw back when the show was first announced ruined particular moments, and ABC decided to ruin the pilot’s “surprise,” none of it did anything to ruin the enjoyment of an enormously charming pilot. With a fantastic cast and a clever premise, the show only stops delivering laughs to provide heartwarming moments which are then turned upside down all over again.

The show isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s a pilot which so hilariously defines its characters without turning them into one-dimensional stereotypes that it is certainly something to get excited about.

The pilot divides out the show more than you’re used to in a pilot, its three-part structure entirely disconnected until that final scene. As a result, we meet the three groups in pods, individual sections which join at the end. It allows the show to prove two things: first, that these individual families are interesting and worth spending time with, and secondly that when you bring the three families together their individual neuroses are going to become that much more entertaining. So while Phil’s “cool dad” schtick is entertaining in the context of his own children, it becomes a legitimately awkward (and a different sort of entertaining) when he tries to be cool with Gloria, and when he keeps using his hip slang.

What’s interesting about the show is that I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. I enjoy Phil and Claire’s dynamic (especially her delivery of “I do our job”), and I think Jay goes through the episode’s most substantial transformation (both with Manny and with accepting Mitchell’s adoption of a baby), and Cameron’s Lion King introduction of young Lily is perhaps one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen on T.V. in a very long time (I nearly lost it when the spotlight came on).

But it’s a pilot that’s largely without surprises, built as if the final scene was going to be the big twist as opposed to an eventuality in terms of marketing. If you were to list out its various scenarios, you can see precisely where they’re going. Part of the strength of the pilot is that its scenarios are so stock that they tell us exactly what kind of parents Phil and Claire are (scheduling out punishment was particularly fun), but the second a boy comes over you know where things are going. This doesn’t change that I didn’t love when Phil accidentally shoots Dylan, or that his dance routine to High School Musical wasn’t clever, but none of it was built around characters acting against our expectations. We learn that Claire is trying to keep her daughter from turning out like she did when she was her age, and it’s clear that Phil thinks he is far cooler than he actually is (“Why the Face”), and the episode doesn’t go very far beyond that.

The same goes for the other two groups: as the end of the episode indicates, Cameron is the emotional and dramatic one in he and Mitchell’s relationship, while the latter enjoys long speeches and avoiding real issues, while Jay is understandably concerned about people thinking he’s old while Gloria mangles the English language. We know that Manny is going to fail at his conquest, so the surprise was saved for that final scene. It’s a hell of a scene, but when it’s not a surprise it gives me something less to talk about.

The show is funny, very funny at points. I love the cast, with Ed O’Neill delivering quite an engaging December and Julie Bowen in particular killing as a paranoid Mother, and in particular feel that they’ve done a bang-up job of casting the kids. And I certainly want to see what happens next, as the writers have shown a flair for the dramatic and a real grasp of the “situational” in situational comedy, but I don’t really have that much more to say: these are typical examples of non-typical families, and while the show’s quality may not be typical it remains to be seen how atypical its staying power will be in the weeks ahead.

Cultural Observations

  • I enjoy Alex, the middle child of Phil and Claire – her nonchalant discussion of how great it would be to have a nephew who her mother pretends is her brother was kind of fantastic.
  • The Phil and Claire storyline was your usual madcap series of circumstances that all culminate in a particular screwup: my favourite little bit was the fact that Phil slipped on the baby oil (the look on Dylan’s face was priceless).
  • My favourite line, though? “Let me take your multi-coloured jacket and bejewelled hat.” Just so good – Mitchell gets a Sports Guy Chest Bump for that.

2 Comments

Filed under Modern Family

2 responses to “Series Premiere: Modern Family – “Pilot”

  1. Agreed all around – nothing that innovative, but perfectly executed. Phil has the makings of a breakout character though – Ty Burrell has something of that barely contained crazy that made Bryan Cranston’s Hal such a force on Malcolm in the Middle. I haven’t been this impressed by a comedy pilot since Arrested Development…

  2. Yeah, I was kind of startled by how complete this show managed to be in the span of 20-some minutes. And while this was well executed, it’s questionable if it can continue that high a quality through the whole season, or if it maybe set the bar a bit too high for itself from the outset (unfair comparison: see Studio 60).

    But still, that ending scene was masterfully great.

    Great stuff as always.

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