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.