Watching the most recent episode of Modern Family, I laughed out loud, smiled, and by the end found myself on the verge of weepy. None of which was an unusual reaction.
So my question is: If this show is so good, why does it always feel like a guilty pleasure?
Using humor to undermine sentiment, almost every episode involves some essential lesson. The plot, last night, as always, had several threads woven neatly by the end into one theme. There’s art to it for sure, and it’s never clear until the last minutes what exactly we are supposed to take away.
Manny has to write a composition about a family member who is a “hero.” Seeing the various petty acts of passive and not so passive-aggression, ethical transgressions, etc. on the part of his parents, and other members of the tribe, it’s a hard call, and he methodically crosses each offender off a list (literally, a list on a note-pad).
Meantime, Claire, still in need of something to do besides run her household, is offered a job by Jay, who having recently sacked his number two, is looking for someone who could maybe take over the business, but Claire, having had a bad experience working for her father in the past, wants to avoid the whole topic.
In another ring of the family circus, Cam and Mitch run into Teddy, Mitch’s ex, a pediatrician. Dr. Teddy invites them to a fundraiser at a roller rink on Saturday. Cam, who has never met Teddy before, accepts. Mitch worries that Cam will be uncomfortable around his ex, but Cam insists he’s fine with it. That is, until Saturday comes and the entire Pritchett and Dunphy clan show up at the rink. It turns out Teddy is still the Dunphy’s pediatrician, and Phil is his real estate agent. He’s been golfing with Jay who seems to enjoy an easier rapport with him than he’s ever had with Cam. Everybody loves Teddy, even Lilly and Gloria who’ve just met him. So Cam is, of course, crushed.
Also at the rink:
- Haley and Alex try to flirt with two cute boys, and Alex is clueless.
- Gloria admits she can’t skate and doesn’t want to look like an idiot, so puppy-dog Phil, tries to teach her.
- Claire confronts her father and faces his disappointment.
This being Modern Family and not real life, we aren’t left with future traumatic memories and bad feelings. Instead, in the last few minutes everything is resolved:
- Alex will not look back on another incident on her road to having twenty cats. Social genius Haley teaches book-smart Alex a valuable lesson about interacting with people, and Alex has a realization that maybe Haley isn’t so dumb.
- Phil will make a noble sacrifice, in order for Gloria to have a chance to skate without feeling like she’s on display.
- Claire sees Jay do something that shows he’s grown and changed, so she decides to take the job after all.
And what magical thing does Jay do that gets Claire to change her mind? The patriarch sits down with Cam and casually starts talking about what a great guy Teddy is, but how he’s still not in a successful relationship, and that says something, and Jay never thought he was good for Mitch — that he didn’t “bring out the best in him,” the way Cam does and always has. Cam lights up.
Manny writes his essay about how his entire family are heros because of “the way we are together.” He gets a C+ because the teacher says it was “not the assignment.”
So here’s the deal: We love Modern Family because all the characters are both “types” that exist in our own families (no matter what our ethnicity, social class, orientation, etc), they are also well-developed as individuals, and they are brought to life by an amazing cast. Because it so easy for us to identify with them, to think they are like us, we are also lulled into believing for a moment that our families are just like this too.
The thing is, it’s no more realistic than I Love Lucy or The Brady Bunch.
Even if your father-in-law (for whose respect you desperately long) does believe you were the best possible thing that could happen to his son, chances are he’ll never tell you. Even if your father has changed from the last time you briefly worked for him, the two of you will revert to old patterns and get stuck in your past dynamic because that’s how real families operate.
Once upon a time people watched Fred Astaire on the silver screen and would believe for a moment in the dark that they too could dance like that – or at least forget they couldn’t – because he made it look so effortless. For thirty minutes (including commercials) every week, we can forget what happened last Thanksgiving, and believe in the heroism of “how we are together.”
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