I really liked Modern Family in its first season. The show kicked off with a near-perfect pilot, and from there used a great cast and some more modern techniques (single camera, mockumentary style) to tell what were, essentially, standard sitcom stories. Even if the plot beats were familiar, they had just enough of an edge to them to keep them from getting boring, and the results were a delight to watch. Although I thought Parks and Recreation was truly the best comedy that year (its second season), it wasn’t even nominated, and so I certainly didn’t begrudge Modern Family for its first Outstanding Comedy Series win (especially since it meant keeping Glee from a win for its first season).
Things started to change during the second season for me, though. Every week seemed like yet another variation on the “Sustained Misunderstanding” trope, to the point where I was rolling my eyes more than I was laughing. And nothing against a very funny Sofia Vergara, but I also found the use of Gloria to be increasingly problematic, as she was increasingly racialized, with seemingly every joke revolving around her “rough Colombian upbringing” and her hilarious accent that nobody could understand! But it made sense for what was really just an old-fashioned sitcom dressed up to look new — they could be with the times and have a diverse cast (in terms of race/ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation), but then undercut any supposed “progressiveness” with jokes at the minority characters’ sake.
So how are things going so far in season three? Well, I still really enjoy spending time with these characters, and the show still makes me laugh, but if the first two episodes are any indication, I have some big reservations going forward.
To start, the writers really need to dial back both Claire and Mitchell. I know Julie Bowen just won an Emmy, but Claire so regularly comes off as shrewish that it’s difficult to have any sympathy for her. This was especially an issue in “When Kids Go Bad” — the whole family was kind of unfairly going against her, but the extreme measures she went through to prove she was right just came off as pathetic rather than funny. Claire as overly controlling and bossy has been entertaining before, but it’s becoming her only character trait, and it’s running out of steam fast. Mitchell’s problems run along similar lines. I’m pretty sure all he did during the two episodes was whine and complain nervously, and while I understand he’s stressing about the idea of adopting another kid, Jesse Tyler Ferguson is very capable of playing more than selfish and insecure about his “manliness.”
And that’s where my biggest problem lay this week. I’m not sure what TV writers think is happening in society and why a supposed “crisis in masculinity” is such a hot topic this season (see: Last Man Standing, Work It, Man Up!), but the trend has apparently rubbed off on the Modern Family crew, and it’s more than a little troubling. At the end of last season, we saw Cameron and Mitchell say they wanted to adopt a baby boy, and now that Lily is a toddler, I think there’s a lot of potential (which they’ve already started to explore) in dealing with bringing another child into their home. I see no potential in stories revolving around Mitchell’s lack of manhood, though. Not only do they serve to normalize stereotypically masculine behavior (characterized in these episodes as shooting guns, blowing up things, and even catching water bottles, among other things), but since it’s Mitchell, they also serve to equate homosexuality with a lack of masculinity. I know Cameron sort of disproves this, since he’s into “manly” things like sports, but when all Mitchell does is complain and worry and talk about Broadway musicals, it’s hard not to draw a line between his gender and his sexuality. Modern Family isn’t necessarily the most nuanced show — it closed out both episodes with its trademark cloying warm and fuzzy voiceover, just to make sure we understood the moral of the story — but topics like these deserve nuance, and really shouldn’t be approached without it.
All that said, there were parts I liked of each episode. The dude ranch trip was a good way to have the whole extended family together at the start of the season and offered some good physical gags, especially with various characters on horseback. The Jay and Phil stuff was sweet, and Dylan’s proposal to Haley was treated comedically enough that it didn’t seem as weird as it probably was (and it’s too bad if that’s actually the last we see of him). Alex’s first kiss was pretty random filler and the guide hitting on Gloria was just creepy, but with so many subplots being juggled, the success rate was pretty good.
I probably liked the second episode more, if only because it didn’t rely on a contrived big event that would have felt more appropriate during sweeps. As I discussed above, I wasn’t a fan of Claire’s behavior throughout, but I enjoyed that the whole family just naturally came together at the end, and Cameron’s practice and execution of the “low key” reveal of their big news was hilarious. The thematic through-line of kids learning bad behavior from their parents was a little heavy-handed at the end, but it worked well to tie everything together and give some more context to why these characters are who they are.
All in all, a so-so start to the new season. There are a lot of strong elements, and, as always, a more than capable cast, but there are also enough problematic areas that the rest of the season could really go either way. We’ve seen in the past that Modern Family is capable of being great, but it seems to be settling for merely “good,” and with all the Emmy validation, I just fear they won’t see the need to fix what, in their eyes, isn’t broken.
Bits & Pieces:
- As great as the adult cast is, I think the kids are what holds it all together. Nolan Gould and Rico Rodriguez, in particular, are so funny, but Sarah Hyland also continues to bring something more to Haley than just the surface-level bitter teenage stuff.
- Speaking of the child characters, Lily has been recast as a three-year-old. She doesn’t really look like Baby Lily, but she’s cute, and it should give Cameron and Mitchell some more story possibilities.
- Dylan telling Claire that, if Haley weren’t his girlfriend and Phil were out of the picture, he’d be “honored to raise Luke, Alex, and Haley as his own” — funny or creepy?
- “Buffalo Phil… worth the wait.”
- Great montage of Cam coddling Lily, especially when she’s standing outside the shower holding his hand.