“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 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.
“The Bicycle Thief”
September 30th, 2009
I, like every other TV critic on the planet, liked Modern Family. I even loved parts of it. But I was one of the few who expressed some trepidation at what the show was going to look like in the weeks ahead. So much of the episode was derived from the amazing final scene, one where everything came together in a bit of epic coming timing, and I wasn’t sure how the individual stories could live up to that moment.
For me, “The Bicycle Thief” leans heavily on two elements that made the pilot as strong as it was, focusing on Ty Burrell’s cool dad Phil and Cam’s dramatic side. I love what it does with Phil in this episode, and very much enjoy Cameron and Mitchell’s side of things, but I felt as if Jay and Gloria’s side of the equation was lacking a bit.
And it matters because here they choose to let the different families stand on their own for an episode, connecting them together with a general theme (a theme of fatherhood, in particular) as opposed to letting them mingle between one another. It makes for an episode that is somewhat less zany and surprising, but in at least 2/3 of its content it’s just as strong as it was last week.
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.
June 26th, 2009
After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.
It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.
The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.
All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.
But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.