“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.
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 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.
“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.
“Welcome to Los Angeles!”
August 20th, 2009
After being caught in legal hell for about six months, Project Runway is finally back. Amidst swirling speculation about how the show would change, and whether it would be able to retain its success jumping to a new (and older-skewing) network, the show debuted to the series’ highest premiere ratings ever, and has proved quite a lucrative pickup for Lifetime in their efforts to expand their unscripted programming.
But, realistically, I don’t care about any of that: yes, there is some fascinating analysis of demographics and legal wrangling to be done, but at the end of the day I’m a fan of this show more than an outside observer, and as a result I was curious to see how the show would change from a production standpoint. We knew that the show was jumping to Los Angeles, but with a new production team behind the scenes there was every change that the show could feel fundamentally different.
However, within seconds, it became clear that reality television is almost scarily interchangeable, as this is almost entirely the same show despite coming from a different production company. Sure, five seasons would give them plenty of research, but to be able to so easily recreate the same kind of atmosphere even with the same types of sets is almost uncanny. Reality shows rely so much on familiarity, so I understand the need to reproduce everything, and I think the show succeeds at weathering all elements of the transition and remaining the same show it’s always been.
Which means this review can be more about the designers and the game itself rather than the behind the scenes drama, something I’ve been looking forward to for about, you know, ten months.