Sitcom television has evolved quickly over the last decade. Yes, there’s still shows like Two and a Half Men, but the single camera, actually-filmed or faux-documentary style has freed half hour comedies from the set-based, laugh-tracked trappings of earlier generations (even M*A*S*H had a laugh track). Modern Family borrows much from The Office’s faux-documentary conceit, but as a portrait of a family (headed up by Ed O’Neil and his step-wife Sofia Vergara), the show is modern in its approach to what constitutes a family and familiar in how it makes its jokes. It’s multi-ethnic, with a homosexual son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner (Eric Stonestreet), but then also with a Simpsons-inspired regular family (headed up by Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell). My review of Modern Family on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
Jay Pritchett (O’Neil) is the older father, whose two children are Claire Dunphy (Bowen) and Mitchell Pritchett (Ferguson). Jay is divorced and has remarried a younger, hotter Spanish lady named Gloria Delgado (Vergara). She has a son named Manny (Rico Rodriguez), who is worldly, often falls in love, and is definitely off. Claire and her husband Phil (Burrell) have three children: the borderline special interest child Luke (Nolan Gould), the smarter than she should be middle sister Alex (Ariel Winter), and older sister Haley (Sarah Hyland), who is in the midst of her first love and sex during the first season. Claire’s brother Mitchell is gay and lives with Cameron Tucker (Stonestreet) and the two have adopted a Vietnamese daughter named Lily.
These are the three families and over the course of the season you get to know them. Ed O’Neil’s character is the gruff, stuck in his ways father, Claire is the smart but easily thrown off her game head of the family, her husband tries to be hip, but is constantly doing spectacularly dumb things, and the gay couple fall into stereotypes, but never degradingly. Cameron is a flamer, the one who constantly dresses their child up, but also the tough guy, while Mitchell is the alpha in terms of work, but also an ex-figure skater.
Watching the show in quick succession, it’s easy to see the rhythms, and see the patterns they’ve developed. There are some interesting angles on the side of the show (it seems apparent that Haley has probably become sexually active, though without discussion of condoms or the like), but the show generally wants to put a button on the end of each show, so it ends with an affirmation of the family – making it safe. This affirmation is generally done by slightly undercutting things, and it becomes repetitious in its way. One episode ends with family members being thrown in a pool, while the finale ends with the family smearing each other in mud for a family photo. The end result is the same: we torture each other to love each other. There’s a sequence where Haley’s boyfriend says some positive words to the family, and then sings a song. How they follow that is humorous, but the punchline is lame.
There are comic highlights and lowlights, though no episode stands out as exceptional. There’s an appearance of Cameron as a clown, and he has a great scene at a gas station, but clowns aren’t really funny (though Burrell’s revulsion to clowns is excellent). You can see where they want to hit some dark notes (there’s a fencing competition where a family member beats a troubled child), but the show never lets itself end with the family actively made at each other. So it’s got the ability to go a little dark, but it eschews every letting that take over an episode. There’s always a peppy wrap up, and that becomes beguiling for formula. Watching the shows in at home like this, or even week in and week out, there are definitely comic high points, but the show almost feels like it’s on autopilot in terms of structure and jokes. First seasons tend to be awkward in some ways, and this may be just trying to figure it out. This was a strong season, but they can’t keep going like this. They can’t keep hitting the same notes.
But sitcoms are about chemistry and performers, and though early episodes go heavy on gay stereotyping, this is a great ensemble cast. You can see the writers trying to define roles, but Bowen makes for a great housewife, and Burrell has a very interesting, but still loose character. Burrell should be the biggest headache, as he has a lot of Michael Scott in him as the dim-bulb unaware adult, but then the show throws some curveballs with his character every once in a while that makes him just one of those guys who is in his own head a lot. O’Neil is excellent as the patriarch. Even if he’s had years of practice, this isn’t Ed Bundy, and O’Neil manages to have humanity while still being a capital A bozo. Vergara is often called upon to show cleavage, but she works well within the confines of the role, and though the show goes soft on the possibility that she’s a gold digger, she’s no weak link either (she’s got a fun character to play). With all sitcoms, it’s about creating characters, but also giving them interesting distractions, and they do find interesting things to do with each character. Though this isn’t the home run the Emmy’s might suggest, it’s a solid show. But if it wants to be about a Modern Family, I hope it starts taking more chances. In that way, it reminds of the first season of The Simpsons.
Fox presents the show in a 3-disc Blu-ray set. The show is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround. The set contains all 24 episodes, and the transfers are excellent, though the surround presentation is limited. Disc one offers deleted scenes (15 min.) and deleted family interviews (9 min.), something that is also done on disc two, with a collection of deleted scenes (21 min.) and family interviews (2 min.) Disc 3 has deleted scenes (9 min.) and then a gag reel (6 min.). Then come the regular supplements. “Real Modern Family Moments” (10 min.) has the show’s writers and creators talking about plucked moments from their real lives, while “Before Modern Family” (13 min.) surveys the cast’s past experiences. The adult actors shine here, and Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell come off great. “Fizbo the Clown” (4 min.) gives actor Eric Stonestreet credit for his make-up and alter-ego, and the set wraps up with two behind the scenes for two of the last episodes (9 and 5 min.) with the latter focusing on the cast’s trip to Hawaii.