“Travels with Scout”
April 28th, 2010
If we accept that Modern Family is going to be an inherently predictable show, then the difference between a good episode and a bad episode is what predictable behaviour it leans towards. In the case of “Travels with Scout,” we find a familiar three-part structure that offers each family with their own story, all of which reach somewhat heartwarming, somewhat embarrassing, ultimately positive conclusions.
And ultimately, this is the type of episode which works: the show isn’t really going to abandon this formula, and so long as those stories provide a solid balance of believable human behaviour and clever one-liners the show is pretty much in its comfort zone. The show runs into problems when it becomes predictably sappy or overwrought, and the few moments where “Travels with Scout” could move in that direction are nicely undercut with the subtle deployment of some broad comedy.
It’s not going to be a series best, but it feels like an episode which earns its running time, which is what the show should be doing at this stage in the season.
March 31st, 2010
I’ve written a few times in the past about how Twitter can create certain expectations about a show before I get a chance to watch it, and this was very much the case with “Game Changer.” I didn’t know anything about the episode going into the day, but the people I follow on Twitter were all very interested in discussing the appearance of Apple’s shiny-new iPad on the series.
As I tweeted after watching the episode late last night, I don’t necessarily get the outraged response from some people: product integration is something that we need to start accepting as part of this television era, and the iPad is precisely the kind of product that Phil (who has to money to support his every technological impulse) would be desperate to purchase. My general view on product placement is that if it fits the show and the character then there’s nothing to be outraged about; as long as there’s congruity, outrage is simply not an emotion I’m likely to feel.
However, what we should be focusing on with “Game Changer” is that it didn’t really make me feel anything at all: rather than focusing on the product replacement as an easy target, let’s focus on how the Claire/Phil story was dangerously close to stories the show has done before, or how the rest of the episode felt just a bit “lazy.”
March 24th, 2010
I think we’re past the point where I need to go into my usual rant about Modern Family, a show which is well-crafted and funny but not necessarily funny because it is well-crafted. In other words, the show has some very funny performers who are often given funny things to do, but the structures of the show, for me personally, tend to impede rather than improve those stories. The show is unquestionably well-crafted, but there are times when I see the fingerprints of writers and directors all over the show, and it sort of takes me out of the moment and makes me appreciate the show more than I love it.
So while I’m tired of trying to lay out the whole “like, not love” situation with the show, I do want us to keep it in mind, since some very engaging stories were ever-so-slightly damaged by a bit of over-writing in “Starry Night.” While the sort of non-linear storytelling the show seems to love so much makes sense in certain instances, including one of the stories in this episode, it overcomplicated the others in a way which continues to frustrate me – I laughed in between my furrowed brows, don’t get me wrong, but I want to avoid the furrowing altogether.
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.