“Dash, Flash, Crash”
November 17th, 2010
Last week I posted about concerns regarding Modern Family’s relationship with questions of race and ethnicity (albeit focused on the former), and over at TV Overmind the commenters were…well, they were angry. My point was not to say that the show is racist, but rather that there are moments when questions relating to sensitive issues are located within the production of the series rather than character actions.
Let’s take, for example, Phil’s “If you ain’t white, you ain’t right” t-shirt which angers an African American taxi cab. It’s highly offensive, sure, but it plays into his cluelessness in ways we recognize. It is the intersection of his inability to realize what his words mean with questions of race in today’s society, and its continued presence (“And this year I predict total White domination!”) makes it seem less like that single flashback is necessary in order to construct the joke. It seems like something Phil would do, makes me laugh, and happens to transition into the best episode since “Fizbo.”
In other words, next time you hear me ragging on Modern Family? Manny’s birthday.
The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season
November 10th, 2010
ABC’s Modern Family has always been concerned with questions of race: that Gloria and Manny are Colombian, and that Lily is Vietnamese, were prominent factors in the series’ pilot, so questions of race (and racism) have been evident throughout the series.
And yet, something seems different in the second season. While nothing has been fundamentally changed in terms of questions of race, the show is going to racial humor more often and in a few instances from a different perspective. I would never go so far as to say that the series is racist, but in its desire to increase the amount of racial humor it seems to have forced the issue without allowing it to flow naturally from its characters or even its storylines.
While it is not enough to condemn the series, I would argue that the way race has been presented so far this season shifts ownership of these dynamics to the people behind the scenes as opposed to the characters within the series, creating problematic questions of authorship that threaten both the series’ realism and its complexity.
“The Old Wagon”
September 22nd, 2010
“Time marches on, huh?”
The central storyline in “The Old Wagon” is about nostalgia: the Dunphy family keeps their station wagon around not because it’s functional, but because it holds treasured memories of their past that they are unwilling to let go.
My growing issue with Modern Family is that it doesn’t feel like a beat up station wagon with character; instead, it feels like one of those models which takes people’s nostalgia for classic cars and then crams it into a shiny new package. There are elements here that I enjoy as a viewer, and elements that are unquestionably well-executed, and yet the ultimate package feels as if it has been manufactured to create that response instead of earning it.
In an episode which emphasized the importance of reflecting on how fast things change in our lives, Modern Family demonstrated that absolutely nothing has changed since the show sprang to life a year ago. “The Old Wagon” is not even close to being a bad episode of television, but it fits so comfortably into the show’s patterns that it honestly frustrates me more than a legitimately bad episode would.
At least then there might have been a single moment of growth.
May 19th, 2010
Throughout Modern Family’s first season, episodes have been airing out of production order, which isn’t overly surprising: a lot of new comedies air this way based on the strength of certain episodes and to ensure new viewers stick around for a while. However, it means that we’re not really able to read too much into the show’s long term character development, as episodes become interchangeable; I’m not suggesting every sitcom needs to have such character development, but this feels like the kind of show where characters are going to get older over time (especially the kids), and where I’d hope that they would evolve into new stories as this successful show continues into future seasons.
However, I would have been perfectly fine had “Family Portrait” been aired earlier in the season, as I don’t entirely understand why it was chosen as the season finale. Rife with cliches and some fairly broad storylines which show the characters at their most archetypal, and fairly low on great material for the show’s breakout characters, it seems strange that this would be the note the show wanted to leave on when compared with last week’s vacation episode that ended on an earned emotional conclusion. For a show so willing to control the order of things to provide the best possible impact regardless of production order, to place this “okay” episode in this position as opposed to last week’s really strong outing either indicates they don’t really care what not they leave on or that they have a very different conception of what works about this from my own.
Considering that I’ve been sort of at arm’s length with the show all season, it’s probably the latter.
May 12th, 2010
I don’t think this was, in particular, one of the show’s funniest episodes. There were certainly some clever lines in “Hawaii,” as the show tried out some familiar but not yet tapped out character combinations within the central family, but the show wasn’t going for what you’d call broad humour here.
However, there was a nice sense of realism in the way these stories unfolded; everything reaches a heartwarming conclusion, but rather than undercutting some sort of broad comic satire it seems like a logical extension of a trip which got “real” in a hurry. Everyone was caught dealing with certain realities they hadn’t faced in their daily lives which people are technically supposed to leave behind on vacations, and that led to a focus on these characters as real people in a way the show sometimes elides in its search for comedy.
May 5th, 2010
There’s a point in this episode where I became very afraid. I really like episodes where the characters are all part of the same situation, but there’s a point where it seemed like the show was intending to play out every airport/flying cliche imaginable. Mitchell left his wallet at home, Claire was afraid of flying, and Manny was pulled aside for being on a “No Fly” list – combine with a lot of unpleasantness surrounding those events and Jay’s outward disappointment about the entire family joining them on their Hawaii vacation, and it just wasn’t coming together all that well.
However, “Airport 2010” ended up coming together rather remarkably well: there were some nice use of some non-linear narratives to keep things interesting, the cuts between different stories provided a real sense of dynamism, and when the show eventually gets to its heartwarming conclusion it feels more earned that most similar stories. This is largely because at a certain point the show lets characters talk to one another about their feelings rather than just getting into wacky comic situations that reveal them, very clearly laying out a reason for them to come together to fly to Maui at episode’s end and very clearly identifying what makes this show better than its sitcom situations.
“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.
“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.