When families collide

Forget Glee on Wednesday nights. You’ll find more laughs on ABC at 9 p.m., courtesy of Modern Family.

Forget Glee on Wednesday nights. You’ll find more laughs on ABC at 9 p.m., courtesy of Modern Family.

Yes, in a post-DVR world, there isn’t the need to choose between competing time slots anymore. As a backup, most shows can be found online within 24 hours of airing. The point is that Modern Family should be on your radar, because it is funnier than almost anything on TV.

Modern Family is a half-hour comedy—part sitcom, part faux-documentary—about three different households that make up the Pritchett family. In one home is patriarch Jay Pritchett, played by Ed O’Neill (Married with Children). Also living with Jay is Gloria (Sofia Vergara), his much younger and hot Latina wife, and her 11-year-old son, Manny. Jay’s two grown children helm the other subsets of the family. His daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) has been married for 16 years to goofball Phil (Ty Burrell), and they have three kids. Jay’s son Mitch and his partner Cameron have just adopted a baby girl from Vietnam.

The three groups of people make up one big, extended family meant to encompass as many aspects of the “modern family” as possible. Despite the fact that the premise draws on familial clichés in a painfully convenient way, the result is actually a delightful mix of characters—so much so that the show feels very fresh.

O’Neill plays seasoned father Jay with the right amount of cynicism and caring to be funny. Next to Gloria’s sunny optimism, the character is almost nihilistic. Yet episodes tend to conclude with a simple lesson about loving your kin, in which Jay is often at the center.

Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) play off each other with a dynamic that is both nagging and affectionate. Though the show may play into gay stereotypes more than others—making one of the men neurotic, the other a drama queen—the characters have become somewhat more individualized as the show has progressed. Cameron’s character, in particular, is given a lot of good one-liners.

The most traditional of the bunch is the last nuclear unit. Claire has Phil essentially whipped. That doesn’t stop him, however, from trying to be both friend and parent to his children. The friend part doesn’t work most of the time, as children generally resist when their parents try to be “down” with the kids. Watching him try is both funny and cringe inducing.

What makes Modern Family work so well is that it juggles its many characters with ease. Episodes give equal time to all the main players, often by pairing different characters in the same storyline—several of which are usually going on simultaneously. The mood is light and entertaining, without making the show come off as fluff.
The writing is perceptive too, and that’s often why it’s so funny.

The big winner in the 9 p.m. spot last Wednesday was the CBS drama Criminal Minds, with 13.4 million viewers. Modern Family made a solid showing with 9.3 million, edging out Law and Order: SVU and Glee in the ratings. Thank goodness the fan base is there, because Modern Family has the potential for staying power, especially when other family comedies just feel like the same old thing.