Sunday, April 15, 2012

An Extended Family With Thematic Wackiness: Modern Family Season One Is Enjoyable!

The Good: Very funny, Decent acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: So many characters some get underused, Some very typical sitcom plots, One or two less strong performers.
The Basics: Modern Family shows its pluck with an engaging and very funny first season that holds up fairly well.

One of the key elements in recommending a DVD boxed set, from me, is replayability. This is an aspect that comedy usually suffers on and I have been called an especially harsh grader in the way that I consider shows that I do not think will replay well. When I first sat down to watch Modern Family Season One with my wife, I almost instantly began to feel like the show was going to suffer on the replayability front. I still have that feeling. The reason I felt that way so fast is that when the first episode’s teaser began, two of the characters, Mitch and Cam, are on a plane and Mitch gets defensive over his perceptions of being judged by those whom he thinks are homophobic. As it turns out, his new adopted daughter is holding a cream puff and the paranoid mistake causes Cam to buy everyone headsets for the trip. I saw that gag years ago during the original advertisements for Modern Family and the moment the scene began, I recalled it. More than a testament to any sort of phenomenal memory on my part, it is a sad commentary on how the show telegraphs itself.

That said, watching the four-disc Season One DVD set, I found myself laughing quite a bit. And when I write “laughing quite a bit,” I mean both quantity and quality. I was laughing enthusiastically and frequently and more than any show in recent memory, Modern Family caught me off guard when it was not going in remarkably predictable plot or character directions. The two extremes are what makes this season a tougher sell for me than some.

Modern Family, in its first season, is the story of the extended Pritchett/Dunphy family. The show in this season is organized around themes. So, for example, one episode explores how competitive feelings affect relationships. While young Manny illustrates a surprising athletic talent at fencing, he runs into a moral quandary when his final opponent is a girl. This raises a long-suppressed conflict between Mitch and Claire over their aborted ice skating career, where Claire abandoned Mitch on the eve of their biggest competition. Every member of the family tries to resolve their feelings and come to a conclusion on their beliefs in the situation and the hilarity comes when both Gloria and Jay, who encourage Manny to not hold back on his opponent because of her gender, try to change their minds mid-fight when they hear the girl’s pitiable story.

Modern Family is shot like a documentary, where characters give monologues to the camera. Unlike Once And Again where those monologues are used to express deeper emotions, on Modern Family, the to-camera exposition usually sets up jokes or reveals tensions between characters at any given moment. This technique, thanks to The Office is becoming more commonplace and Modern Family utilizes it fairly well in its first season.

Like most sitcoms that are thematic, Modern Family works much more to establish characters and create hilarious wordplay. To that end, the show is not so much about what happens – it is more often than not a chronicle of daily life for the characters – but how they go about the mundane events in their lives and the stupid things they say and do while they plod along. To the show’s absolute credit, while some of the plots are pretty standard sitcom plots – Claire searches for a good anniversary gift for Phil after he gives her a thoughtful gift and she phoned it in, a child’s birthday party becomes a chaotic event with much mayhem and conflict – the characters are interesting, even if there are a lot of them to keep track of and they are not all given similar amounts of airtime. In the first season, the show is all about:

Jay Pritchett – The patriarch of the family, Jay is a little more conservative than the rest. Even so, he recently married the gorgeous Gloria, who is younger than his daughter and he is struggling to make a home for Manny. Despite being fabulously successful, he often gravitates toward quiet activities, like watching the football game or spending time flying his model plane in the park. He consistently outsmarts Haley when she tries to escape a night with the grandparents to go to a party and his pride in Manny leads to a fight with Claire when Luke and Manny have a little falling out,

Gloria Delgado-Pritchett – Colombian and divorced from her selfish first husband, she seems to be drawn to Jay for the security he represents for her and Manny. She often butchers English phrases, tries to forgive Jay’s ex-wife for ruining their wedding party and comes to hate Jay’s dog butler statue. She is a terrible driver,

Manny Delgado – The son of Gloria and step-son of Jay, he delights in pointing out that he and Claire are step-siblings. He has a little thing for Haley. In attempting to identify with his Colombian culture, he prepares to go to school in a poncho and play the pan flute. He is good at fencing and mourns the death of his turtle when Jay accidentally kills it,

Phil Dunphy – The awkward husband of Claire, son-in-law of Jay. He desperately seeks Jay’s approval and tries to garner it by flying Jay’s model plane with him (and taking it in the face!). He tries to connect with his children, who are horribly embarrassed by his use of ethnic slang, suffers from a kidney stone and accidentally leads on an ex-girlfriend via Facebook. He loves Claire, but retains a youthful exuberance that she often finds annoying. Someday, he might just fix the broken stair in their house,

Claire Dunphy – Ambitious, professional and determined, she is the daughter of Jay and something of a daddy’s little girl. She is married to Phil, arguably because she got pregnant with Haley. A pragmatist, she keeps order in the house and is dismayed when one of her professional rivals is promoted to a position she otherwise would have obtained by this point in her life. Competitive with her brother, Mitchell, she seeks time with Phil where they can spice up their marriage and wants nothing more – in the end – than a perfect picture of the extended family,

Haley Dunphy – The oldest Dunphy daughter, she is a little slutty and very stupid. She dates Dylan and tries to spend all the time she possibly can with him, including trying to sneak out of the house to be with him. She is a terrible driver and her experience with underage drinking in Hawaii is disasterous,

Alex Dunphy – The brilliant younger Dunphy daughter, she sets up many jokes about Haley’s stupidity. She confronts her fears about boys when she goes to a school dance,

Luke Dunphy – The dimwitted younger Dunphy child, he and Phil are very close. He takes the rap for Phil’s online porn, gets an amazing birthday party that he is not really interested in and hunts under the house for buried treasure,

Mitch Pritchett – The gay son of Jay, he feels closer to his mother still in many ways and he and Cam, who have been together for years, have just adopted Lily from Vietnam. He is a very successful lawyer until the day his boss demands more of his time, which makes him fear he will miss all of Lily’s important milestones and he quits. He quickly discovers that home life is not for him and works to get back into the business world, despite Cam inadvertently sabotaging his chances at an ideal job. He is very competitive with Claire and has little to bond with Jay about, though the two share an interest in astronomy,

Cameron Tucker – The big, loveable man in Mitch’s life, he loves raising Lily and essentially being a house husband to Mitch. He has trouble letting Lily cry and he has a life before Mitch as Fizbo, a tramp clown. He has a moon landing with Jay and dispenses many of the season’s funniest lines,

Lily – The adopted daughter of Mitch and Cam, she is just a baby this season.

On the acting front, Modern Family is something of a mixed bag in its first season. Half of the cast is entirely typecast and the other half is brilliant. Yeah, it’s that dramatic of a difference. Sofia Vergara, as Gloria, is initially presented with bangs and with a more simple sense of beauty before a mid-season change after which she pretty much is only seen in clothes that make her look glamorous. At the other end of the spectrum, Julie Bowen might as well be playing her Boston Legal or Lost characters still. She always seems to play the humorless professional and even in the role of stay-at-home mom Claire Dunphy, she performs the same way. Nolan Gould, Ariel Winter and Sarah Hyland all play the Dunphy children, as expected, like the children they are and Gould’s performance suffers some because it is unclear whether his lack of articulation is an acting choice or a function of the actor’s young age.

On the flip side, Rico Rodriguez gets through an exceptional amount of dialogue where he plays a child who often seems older (or creepier) than he actually is. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet have exceptional on-screen chemistry as Mitch and Cam, especially as their characters never kiss. They emote an entirely functional, loving relationship with remarkably little physical intimacy on screen. Ed O’Neill’s Jay is a wonderful counterpoint to his years as Al Bundy and his character from The West Wing (where he, improbably enough, seemed remarkably presidential!).

The real winner, even in the first season, is Ty Burrell. Burrell plays Phil and he is an exceptional physical actor with an uncanny knack for making the deadpan absolutely, laugh-out-loud funny. He delivers his craziest lines with a straight face and he is the breakout actor of the first season of Modern Family. Some might watch the show for Sofia Vergara’s breasts, but it is Burrell that delivers the most bang-for-the-buck.

On DVD, Modern Family Season 1 comes with a minimal amount of bonus features. Like most sitcoms, there are featurettes on the making of the show, but little else. Still, especially because it is not yet syndicated, Modern Family Season 1 is well worth watching and – if you can find it on sale – buying.

For other debut comedy seasons, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Happy Endings Season 1
Frasier - The Complete First Season
Family Guy - Volume 1


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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