Now here’s a surprise: a schmaltzy US family sitcom which is actually rather funny. The first season of Modern Family has arrived in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD (after relative inexposure on Sky1) and the wind of audience and critical acclaim on which is rides is not entirely unjustified.
A family-based sitcom is hardly an original idea, and Modern Family will win no points for brave new ideas. Most of these 24 episodes feature familiar sitcom conceits – comedies of error, awkward misunderstandings, the eternal need for some sort of feeble life lesson. Nor is it entirely brave, style-wise, though its fly-on-the-wall mockumentary format might suggest so. Taking its cue from shows like Arrested Development and the US version of The Office, creators Chris Lloyd and Steven Levitan go for realism, incorporating faint elements of postmodernism. All the while, however, they retain trad-com sensibilities content-wise, never broaching anything especially controversial or radical.
What it will win points for is how genuinely, consistently funny it is. Boasting a writing team with Frasier, King of the Hill and The Larry Sanders Show on their collective CVs, Modern Family has the comedy chops to keep you watching. Some splendid writing is on show here, observing the complex relationships between relatives and the foibles of parenting with confidence, pace and intelligent repartee.
And though the comedy is fairly old-fashioned, the ‘sit’ part of the ‘com’ is appropriately modern. Yes, there’s the nuclear family of Claire, Frank and their three kids, but then there’s Claire’s father, Jay, who has remarried Gloria. a sexy young Latino wife with a 10-year-old son. And then there’s Claire’s gay brother Mitch, who has just begun a thoroughly modern family with his partner, Cam, and their adopted Vietnamese baby, Lily.
All this provides a rich source of conflicts and capers, buoyed by a terrific ensemble cast. Easily the highlights are Mitch and Cam, played with a wonderful gusto by Jesse Tylor Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet respectively. Gay television characters always walk a trepidatious tightrope between realistic portrayals and camp stereotypes, and while there are more than a few scenes of histrionic outbursts – neither characters are prone to hiding their emotions – they do so with warmth and charm, making them utterly convincing.
They’re also by far the funniest characters on the show. Their combined penchant for melodrama is never more attuned as when they accidentally lock their daughter in the car, and while Cam wails to the emergency services that “people are judging us,” Mitch grabs the nearest bin and screams “I’m going to smash the window” in a way that the phone operator believes is a woman’s voice.
With a sometimes patience-wearing 24 episodes, Modern Family occasionally drags with filler episodes; and the soppy, incessant moral lessons that American networks insist on ending all sitcom episodes with always sits less comfortably with the more cynical, pessimistic viewers this side of the pond. But on the whole, it’s a treat – warm, funny, painfully well-observed. And with the second season just starting in the US, the best could still be on the way.