I have this theory - and it's not a very good one, since I just came up with it and then spent the next 45 minutes thinking of exceptions to the theory - that the comedies we really love are the ones that find a way to surprise us. If a drama starts out at a certain level of quality, that's pretty much a net positive for it, especially if it can maintain it. If a comedy, however, starts out at a certain level of quality, there's less room for it to grow. Because TV comedy is so predicated on the idea of building a world we want to hang out in from week to week, there's a necessary period of growth that we, the audience, have to go through WITH the comedy to get to the stuff we truly treasure. Therefore, a show that starts out at a B-level and then gradually ascends to an A-level can often end up feeling like a better show than a show that started out at the A-level, stayed there for a while, then began a gradual decline, even if both shows have the same number of A-level episodes. Part of the fun of watching TV comedy is going on a weird journey with the show, and that's not possible with a series that starts out at a creative peak.
Put another way, Modern Family started out with one of the best pilots I've ever seen, and the only comedy this season I'd put above it is Parks and Recreation (though my dearly beloved Party Down has yet to debut). But I'm not entirely sure that the show will be anywhere near my list of favorites by the time, say, season three rolls around. I'd love to be proved wrong, and the way the show has kept up the level of quality this season suggests I will be proved wrong, but at the same time, the show is a solid, out-of-the-box hit with a dedicated audience that loves the shit out of it. Why fix the few, niggling little things that might eventually drag it down when you've got that? So when I read criticism of Modern Family -as there seems to be a growing amount of - I don't angrily fight for the show like I would other series. I kind of get where they're coming from. There's not a lot of room for this series to surprise anyone, and don't we want to be surprised?
But at the same time, I think it's sort of strange to want Modern Family to be surprising. In tonight's episode, when Cam tried to keep Mitchell from going in the house, it was pretty obvious that there were going to be many, many Latinos in the living room, and they'd be doing something crazy (holding a wedding, as it turned out). I know some will hold it against the show that this gag was utterly predictable, but Modern Family is very much a comedy that predicates its ideas on a foundation of being directly relatable to what goes on in real life. It's a show that gets as much mileage out of the idea of how the characters would react to a dog butler statue as it does the statue itself. There are a lot of comedies out there that live to subvert expectations, to make you laugh by looking at something in a new way. Modern Family is a comedy that lives to conform to your expectations, to make you laugh by recalling something in your own life that's vaguely similar. When done poorly (as a few of the episodes - like that awful one where Cam and Mitchell took Lily to the doctor - have been), this makes the show feel extra formless. But when done well, it makes the show both funnier than it probably should be and gives it an extra touch of, "Aw. My life's JUST LIKE THAT."
That said, if the show is going to grow in any one direction, I'd like if the series grew in the direction of deepening the characters' relationships between each other. Too many of the recent episodes have featured the three families in separate storylines, and while there are some relationships in these families that could stand for slightly more propping up - Phil and Claire's three kids could probably benefit from a little more development to just stop being generic kids - we know, for the most part, how Cam is going to react to something Mitchell does or how Gloria and Jay are going to argue. I don't think this is always a bad thing - a lot of great comedy can be done by setting up a situation where the laughs stem just as much from thinking about how one character will react as from anything else - but it has made the show feel just slightly in a rut of late. The best episodes of the series, from "The Incident" to "Fizbo," mix up the characters and deepen the "mythology" of what this family is all about.
"Not in My House" didn't head too far in that direction, but at least it blended the Mitchell and Cam storyline with the Jay and Gloria one to pretty good effect. Seeing that Cam was so warm-hearted that he'd keep taking in people who needed help wasn't really much more than a one-joke premise, but by tossing it in with Gloria's hatred of the dog butler, the show figured out a way to take both one-joke premises and make them into, at least, two-joke premises, as Jay forced the dog butler on his son. My only complaint was that this mixture of the storylines came a little late. Had it arrived slightly earlier, we might have gotten more of Cam's dog butler voice, which was really funny.
The Dunphys, however, mostly ended up in a story that had its moments but felt like a lot of things they've done already. Phil does something stupid, and Claire thinks it's one of the kids. Rinse and repeat. It's the small things that make or break a storyline like this, and, fortunately, the small things were mostly on tonight, particularly in that long sequence where we found out that everyone BUT Alex had read Haley's journal. Luke talking about having read Haley's journal and Claire thinking he was talking about porn? Yeah, it was where you always knew the story was going to go, but I love jokes like that. And Alex, with her sly attempts to pit everyone in her family against each other, is rapidly turning into the most underrated character on the show.
I hope Modern Family has staying power. I hope we're watching it for decades to come and that when aliens dig up a time capsule of the 2010s, this is the show they pop in to think about the way we live today. But if it doesn't, if the show never quite figures out a way to go from very good to super great all the time, I'm not sure it matters. Modern Family has been a terrific little show for most of its first season (which it reaches the halfway point of with this episode), and it's breathed new life into a mostly moribund genre (the family sitcom). Could the show be more surprising? Probably. But then it wouldn't be this show, and this show is the one I fell for.
- I am decidedly not Donna, who is having to watch basketball or something tonight. She'll be back when next Modern Family airs.
- Also, Modern Family got the season two pickup. Woo!
- "Luke might end up having an unhealthy attitude about sex or agribusiness."
- "I HATE the dog butler."
- "You know what they call that in Europe? A cereal commercial."
- "A lot of parents are hitting again."
- "Rough day, dad. Your hot young wife doesn't like your doll."
- "She's probably a little young, anyways. We could just prop her up in front of the dryer for a half hour."