Modern Family

Modern Family is easily the most intelligent American comedy I’ve seen in a while, currently on its first season in Australia and, I believe, its second in the US. It follows the escapades of ‘modern family’, the Pritchett-Delago-Dunphy-Tuckers. Patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) is on his second marriage to much younger Gloria Delago-Pritchett (Sofia Vergara), who has a son from a former relationship, Manny (Rico Rodriquez). Jay has two adult children, Claire (Julie Bowen), who’s married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and they have three children – Luke, Hayley and Alex(andra). Son Mitchel (Jesse Tyler Fergusen) is gay and in a de facto relationship with Cameron Tucker (Eric Longstreet) and they have an adopted Korean daughter, Lily. Following me so far?

Jay and Gloria

There are several things I like about the show. For starters, though Jay is much older than Gloria – the IMDB puts O’Neill as being 26 years older, and Vergara as two years younger than Bowen – it isn’t played as the pathetic old guy pretending he’s younger and the gold-digging trash that the media got so much mileage out of Anna-Nicole Smith. Gloria and Jay gel together, and have a deep fondness and respect for one another. Despite being very straight-laced with ‘traditional’ American values – he’s all ‘rah-rah, red-white-and-blue’ – he tries hard to respect and accommodate Gloria and Manny’s Columbian heritage. Unlike many portrayals of couples where a man is married to a woman way out of his league age and/or looks-wise, treats her like trash, neglects her, or takes her for granted, and this gorgeous, younger woman for some reason accepts it as her due, I could totally buy that Jay and Gloria had a connection based on love and respect. I would have liked an explanation as to how their relationship came about – I don’t imagine they traveled in the same circles – but that was either established in the episodes I missed or before the show began.

One particular episode epitomised what I like about Modern Family. It’s revealed that Gloria, far from being a poor chess player, way surpasses Jay and let him win when they first met. This leads to a squabble about how he’s a poor loser and results in an impromptu game with both determined to win. In the end, they agree that it’s not worth fighting over and they upend the board. In the faux-interview clips that the show is littered with, Jay revealed that he knew he was losing and suggested they stop fighting over a silly game as a graceful way out, and Gloria admits that she knew she was two moves away from winning but took the graceful way out because she’s a better chess player… and an even better wife. While it would have been cool to see Gloria totally kick Jay’s ass and have him concede that she was better at some things than him, I also thought it was cool that two adults, having been petty enough to reduce themselves to such a squabble in the first place, were also adult enough to take the classy way out.

Mitchell and Cameron

Onto Mitchell and Cameron. Fergusen himself is actually openly gay; how uncommon is it for a gay man to be played by a gay man? (Eric McCormac, I’m looking at you.) And Mitchell and Cameron are a far cry from the stereotyped mincing, campy gay couple. Mitchell is the more flamboyant of the two – in a conversation with his father, they recall a quote where Mitchell said everything he needed to know about fighting he learnt from West Side Story - but he’s still a far cry from the stereotype the media has been trotting out for years.Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship is one based on love and respect, and comes across as a loving, long-term relationship – with all the various highs and lows that come with it – between two people with a young family who happen to be gay, rather than a ‘gay couple’. With a few exceptions when Modern Family deals with issues specific to a gay couple, much of their dialogue could be easily tweaked to suit Claire and Phil. It’s been confirmed that Mitchell and Cameron will share a kiss in an upcoming episode, and I’m waiting to see if they get (even close to) the same amount of on-screen affection as Jay/Gloria and Claire/Phil do.

Jay, being the straight-laced, traditional American that he is, often struggles with accepting Mitchell’s homosexuality. At times he says inappropriate things – such as comparing Mitchell and Cameron sharing a room to him having to share a room with his brother and introducing Cameron as a friend of his son’s – but you can also see him struggling to overcome his homophobia and accept his son for who he is. If the world had more people such as Jay – men who have lived their lives believing in a certain way of life but strive to compromise on that for the sake of those he loved – we’d all be in a much better place.

Claire and Phil

I actually found them to be the most uninteresting couple in the show – possibly because treating a middle-class, relatively young white couple with respect is far less original than treating a mixed-race, older man/younger woman couple, or a gay couple with respect. However, something I did like is while Claire and Phil have all the tensions you can imagine in a married couple with three children – troubles with their children, disagreements over spending, one or the other feeling unappreciated – they always come across as two people who love and respect one another.

Modern Family isn’t perfect, and it’s a far cry from older sitcoms like Golden Girls and M*A*S*H. But as I said, it’s easily the best American comedy I’ve seen in a while. The three couples in the show, while having their tensions and disagreements, always respect and love one another while not always liking each other – something I feel many film and TV shows fails to grasp. It’s portrayal of relationships with a significant age gap, multiracial relationships and gay relationships is a pleasant change from ugly stereotypes that don’t like anything that strays from the traditional all-American heterosexual coupling. While it could be improved upon, it could also be a hell of a lot worse – as I’m sure all of us can testify to.

Comments

  1. Jen says

    I’ve been watching ‘united states of Tara’, created by Diablo Cody, starring Toni Collette. It’s about a woman (mother/wife/sister/mural painter) who has multiple personalities which developed to deal with her rape at boarding school.
    It is so good!
    Will check out Modern Family now if I can!

  2. Scarlett says

    UST is one of those shows Ive meant to watch for a while but never got around to it. I love Toni. But yeah – Modern Family def has some flaws – I think Phil is the jerkiest of the six and doesn’t get called on it nearly as much as he should – but still a vast improvement of most of what I’ve seen called ‘comedy’.

  3. sbg says

    Lily is Vietnamese, for the record.

    I only caught this show in reruns because it’s on opposite Criminal Minds. What with what’s gone down with that show, I’m thinking that night might see me move to full time Modern Family watching. It’s not without its issues, but I find it more often hilarious than uncomfortable or angry-making. :)

    • scarlett says

      Duh, feel a bit stupid now. Don’t know how I came up with Korean.

      I think what makes MS funny is its truisms. I could totally see my family have the same kind of random moments of funny.

      I was thinking about the chess episode. It’s the b-plot around Phil’s birthday; Claire was going to get up early to line up at 6 for some piece of technology that he wants, but she falls asleep an misses out. She spends the day trying to find another and phil spends the say pissed off that no-one cares. Then Claire procures whatever he wants and he’s all happy again. And I thought his reaction was completely out of proportion with the disappointment of missing out; it wasn’t like he wouldn’t get it EVENTUALLY, he would just have to wait a few extra days and, well, he should have gotten up at five himself if it was so important. It was such a child-like reaction; happy at first to be expecting it, pissed off brat when disappointed, happy again when he gets it. And it bugs me a little that Phil is, IMHO, the jerkiest of the six and doesn’t get called on it nearly as much as he should. I would have liked to see someone call him on the fact he was pissed off at his wife for falling asleep accidentally after getting up at FIVE for him and then being mean and sullen all day until he got what he wanted.

      • sbg says

        Oh, yeah, Phil’s got a lot of that “let’s laugh at the boorish man’s antics and continually let him get away with them” thing going on. As in, he behaves badly and still gets the cookies more consistently than any other character.

        • scarlett says

          Yeah while it shouldn’t really be excuse, I still give MS points for Phil being far LESS boorish-but-still-somehow-funny than a lot of so-called comedies. I actually almost combined the intro and Claire/Phil sections because I think theirs is definitely the LEAST interesting and innovative of the three couples.

          • Ray says

            I don’t know, while I recognize what you’re saying about the treatment of Phil and Claire, I really like their immediate family as well — I find myself laughing because so much of what I see of their relationships with their kids rings true in my own experience. But– I got into the show late and only saw the last 5 episodes available on hulu, so I may not have gotten the overall picture. I think what I really like about the show is that it is about all three families, and by playing them off of one another it finds even more moments that are both connecting and differentiating their experiences, because of or despite their differences. And the comic acting is great.

            • Lynne says

              I feel the need to stick up for Claire and Phil: there are quite a few moments when they become more modern than whitebread.

              In a season one episode we see Claire grapple with seeing herself as “just a housewife” when she realizes that her old friend from work (now an executive) pities her for choosing to raise kids. In the end, being the anchor of a family is just as important as work on the 24th floor.

              And amid the standard “average guy with a hot wife” sitcom trope, we also see Phil’s vulnerability when he tries to connect to Jay and how much he values Claire. (Although he ultimately fails in wacky sitcom fashion, he tries to give her a honeymoon.) It’s also interesting to see the recurring male generation gap between the doofy, non-confrontational Phil and the judgmental, more traditionally masculine Jay–and how they learn from each other and their families.

              There’s more going on than just “two interesting couples and one to bring in the ratings and make middle America feel safe”. I’ll always watch the show for the three dimensional characters and the warmth of family– even though I feel torn about Cam and Mitchell not displaying affection as much as the hetero couples onscreen.

  4. says

    About Jay and Gloria, I actually do think that Jay has a fair amount of “old guy who wants a sexy young wife” cliche in him — but that the show *deals* with that by being aware of it. He’s sensitive about his age. Gloria gets upset when it’s implied she’s a gold digger. The show makes it clear that they love and respect each other, but doesn’t ignore the fact that a couple like the two of them *would* be looked at that way.

    I agree about Phil and Claire, btw. They’re the most standard sitcom-y aspect of the show: gosh, a white, middle class married couple who have communication problems! She nags and he screws things up! Their kids get in wacky trouble! I’ve never seen any of *that* before… (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them and think they’re well written; they just aren’t anything different from standard fare.)

    I think my favorite episode is the one where Jay, Mitch, and Manny go out stargazing together. Jay’s trying to show Manny how to be “normal” by teasing Mitch; Mitch is hurt because stargazing was one of the few things he and his father actually did together and now there’s an intruder (and he’s hurt by the teasing, too). And then in the end, he and Manny end up bonding over being outsiders and actually having a brotherly moment, despite the huge age gap. The dynamics throughout were well done, and the end was genuinely lovely.

    • scarlett says

      Yeah, I like that episode- but then, I generally really enjoy the dynamics between the characters. I like that Jay can be quite belittling unintentionally with what he considers humour and no big deal but he’s also man enough to recognise his actions as being hurtful when someone else calls him on it – Mitch, Gloria etc. It’s a nice twist on the privilidged guy who sees nothing wrong with what he says/does because *he* doesn’t find it offensive.

      Another episode I really liked was when One of Claire’s kids repeats the fact Claire called her a gold-digger (only says ‘gravedigger’ and Claire realises just how hurtful it was to say such a thing, even if she has long since changed her mind. I think scenes like that are a reflection on both the older man/sexy younger wife trope as well as the fact that sometimes you get cases where there genuine love and connection.

  5. philstar22 says

    My only problem with this show is the Claire and Phil relationship. After creating two such awesome couples, the writers really dropped the ball on these two and created the stereotypical sitcom couple. Phil is the idiot man who can’t do anything right and acts like a little kid. Claire is the control freak mother who has to mother her husband as well as her kids. I really wish they could have been as creative and unstereotypical with these two.

    But Mitchell, Cam, Jay, and Gloria are all well fleshed out and enjoyable characters. The kids, for the most part, are pretty believable too. Plus, the show is actually funny, which you cannot say about most comedy these days.

    • scarlett says

      I was watching a rerun where Claire and Phil’s son has been busted with a sexy photo on Claire’s laptop, only for it to turn out that Phil’s friend sent it to Phil. Rather than just own up to the fact it was sent to him as a dumb joke, Phil pins on on his son and pretends to dicipline him in the form of bribing him to take the rap behind closed doors. Naturally, the kid gets fed up with taking the rap for something he’s too young to understand (he rather cutely asks ‘was it hot’, meaning weather, not sexiness, when Phil explains there was a woman with her shirt off) and yells that it was his dad. It was supposed to be funny but to me, it was ‘grown man palms mistakes onto his kid and undermines both his and his wife’s parental authority’. Yeah, totally not funny.

      And the thing is, the second in the double episode was quite funny. Gloria is doing a traditional Colombian meal and after being called on it for making fun of her, Jay attempts to show respect for her heritage. Does it clumsily, but you could tell that he was genuinely trying to respect his wife and step-son’s heritage. Then its revealed that he’s never been affectionate with his children because HIS father wasn’t affectionate with HIM, leading to Mitch not liking PDAs with Cam, and he rather awkwardly tries to break the cycle with hugs and kisses with Mitch and Claire that resonate BECAUSE its so awkward… and then kisses Manny in his sleep, presumably because he recognises that if he wants the cycle of distance to stop, HE has to stop it.

      Y’know, sometimes I think that MF’s PTB recognised that they needed a writer who actually *knew* how to write a multi-gen, mixed-race couple and a writer who *knew* how to write a gay couple… then figured that there was so much material out there on straight middle-class families that they needn’t bother there.

  6. says

    We watched the first few episodes of this a few days ago. I’m a little leery because at this point it could tip either way. I can’t quite tell if they’re going to be using or addressing privilege. Frex, Mitchell and Cameron were quite clearly being racist when they thought their Asian doctor actually gave a shit what culture they raised their Asian daughter in. Although it was shown they were being racist and the doctor got her own back with “Can you show me how hard you hit your daughter’s head? Use your own head,” so that could go either way for me.

    And in the very first episode, when the woman said “Look at the baby with those two creampuffs” and Mitch thought she meant “gays” instead of “delicious pastry treats”, that really should have been the woman’s embarrassment, not Mitchell’s. A White stand-up comedian has a routine about himself stepping outside to yell for his cat Blackie only to realize there was a Black family having a barbeque across the street. The humor of the bit comes from his discomfort of looking like a total asshole. Inadvertently making yourself look like a bigot should be your shame, not the person against whom it appeared you were being bigoted.

    I did think it was interesting that when my mom was trying to sell me on the show, she said that Phil and Claire were a gender role reversed couple, with Claire as the typical “father” and Phil as the typical “mother”. Her evidence was that Claire is the hard-ass disciplinarian and Phil is the laid-back guy who tries to keep the kids happy. That didn’t match my perception at all; I saw Claire as the nagging shrew housewife and Phil as the insecure jackass with no regard for others to whom for some reason TV writers think audiences will relate.

  7. sbg says

    Sylvia Sybil,
    Generally, the show knows when they’re pushing those buttons and they’re very obviously parodying.

    The one that made me upset recently, though, was the mother’s day episode, where Mitchell (and then everyone) treated Cam like the nurturer (which he is) and he got extremely offended at being thought of as the mother, or a woman. Dude, really?

  8. says

    sbg,

    Ugh. Few things piss me off more than gay men who use their homosexuality as a mask for their misogyny. Not liking hoohas is fine. Using that as an excuse to oppress the people attached to them, really really not fine. It sounds like Cam was a relatively mild example but I have seen some textbook horizontal oppression come out of gay mens’ mouths.

    Although I’d probably be more upset about nurturing=mother. When I reproduce, I won’t be the more nurturing parent. I’ll be on Mitchell’s side of the balance, saying, “Let her cry, you’ll spoil her.” If I end up with a woman, I’ll probably just be stereotyped as the man in the relationship, but if I marry a man, then what? We gonna switch the parents’ days around in our household?

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