What’s So Modern About “Modern Family”?

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Apparently “Modern Family” is the favorite comedy of the Romney family. At least that’s what the Republican nominee himself said. Of course campaign consultants, trying to signal to moderate voters that he had no particular hang-ups on social issues, may have advised him to say so. But it might have been one of those rare cases where a politician actually spoke truthfully about his personal preferences.

Regardless of whether the Romneys actually watch “Modern Family,” millions of others do. With DVR viewing added in, it’s sometimes the most watched show of the week, often beating even football. And of course it has won boatloads of Emmys. Clearly there’s something in this show that resonates with a wide swath of American society.

Occasionally the claim is made that the show’s popularity reflects the complexities of modern America. One of the most withering critiques of the GOP in 2012 was that it was a “’Mad Man’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ world.” “Modern Family,” in other words, supposedly represents where we are today.

The show follows an extended family made up of three households: a paterfamilias with a young Latina wife and a stepson; his daughter and her family; and his gay son and his family. What’s “modern” about the family is that one character is divorced with a trophy wife, while a second character is a partnered gay man with an adopted Asian daughter.

“Modern Family” is an absolutely great show, but not because of its sociology or commentary on the modern condition. It’s great because the writing, plotting, and characterizations herald top-quality professionalism. Each show is beautifully constructed, fast-paced and terrifically funny. The humor is not aggressive, sarcastic, intended to shock or built on cheap one-liners. The jokes almost always grow out of the personal shortcomings of the all-too-human characters, who are constantly being deflated by their own foibles.

You can tell “Modern Family” is a great show because, like “Seinfeld” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” it has no imitators. There is no formula to imitate other than to assemble the industry’s best writers and producers and set them loose. Oh sure, the little lamented “The New Normal” featured a gay couple, a surrogate mother and assorted other colorful characters, but no one would claim it was anything like “Modern Family.”

Despite claims about its social relevance, “Modern Family” is fundamentally a deeply conservative show. It’s not modern or cutting edge in the way that “Louie” or “Girls” are. It’s a show that’s very satisfied with the status quo.

The show’s emphasis on the importance of “family” would not be out of step in a 1950s sitcom. Nor would its apparent belief that a family can solve every problem if they’d just open up and be honest with each other. There are plenty of tensions on “Modern Family,” but no dysfunction. Every show has a heart-warming resolution where a minor conflict is smoothed over. If only real families could be like this!

“Modern Family” is also unusually conservative in its approach to sexuality, which has been domesticated and rendered passionless. Given that there are only mild sex jokes and no distasteful double-entendres, no one except the most extreme prude would feel uncomfortable watching this show. There are some goofy situations where sex is innocently hinted at, but no one is in danger of being titillated from “Modern Family.”

In fact, the show is so tame that it has drawn fire from some gay advocacy groups for its airbrushed depiction of gay life. Cam and Mitchell, the gay couple, never kiss, lounge around in bed together, allude to the fact that they have a sex life, or do anything at all that might make some members of the audience feel uncomfortable. And although they are currently engaged to be married, following the roll-back of California’s Proposition 8, the show had never shown any previous interest in same-sex marriage.

But where “Modern Family” is really not modern is in its approach to class. Everyone on the show is upper-middle-class, with few economic worries. The families are so well-off that the two mothers and one of the gay dads stay home to care for the kids. In a world of single parents, broken homes, and two-paycheck families where the spouses fight over who drops off the kids at daycare, “Modern Family” depicts an idealized world of comfort and security. In this regard, “Roseanne” was much more modern 20 years ago than “Modern Family” is now.

Having said that, “Modern Family” creators seem to understand that the main obligation of any television show is to provide as much entertainment as possible for the greatest number of people. A sitcom is not a Ken Burns documentary and no show needs to speak for the entirety of American society. “Modern Family” deserves all its accolades for being a series that amuses millions of people — and one that, as the cliché goes, can be watched by the whole family. But let’s not overpraise it. It’s not really a reflection of the modern family

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2 comments
  1. Really good Gary . Had never watched it til this year. Points about sex and class well made. Will probably see Kim when I am in DC at my brother’s for Thanksgiving. Will definitely let you know if I make it to NYC the following week

    • Thanks Marjorie. This is a show that plays it safe and aims at the highest audience. I believe that when the show debuted, gay marriage was legal in CA (before it got banned by Prop 8). I’m not really sure so I didn’t want to make the claim, but either way, the show has never pushed for it. Now that it’s more acceptable, though, Cam and Mitchell have decided to get married. And either way, their relationship is extremely sexless. Nothing to make the audience squirm. I don’t blame the creators, just want to point out that it’s hardly a groundbreaking show.

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