It feels like we've seen the premise of Modern Family a dozen times over the last few years. Hey, look at the kooky relationships people are getting into these days! Hey, how are twenty-first centuries kidults coping with kids of their own? Hey, how about that mid-life crisis, that trophy wife, that long-term gay partnership -- crazy, right? But when considering a new sitcom, the question you should ask is not "is the premise original?" but "is it funny?" And Modern Family takes these familiar elements -- what could be more familiar than the family itself? -- and treats them in such an assured and deft way that you can't help but laugh. Really, the secret to all sitcoms that take place within families is the fact that it's the one place we can't get away from each other. As Modern Family keeps throwing its mismatched siblings, parents, and in-laws together, there's no reason that the comedic possibilities should ever run dry.
If you haven't been paying really close attention during the promos, the little mini-reveal of the pilot episode might come as a surprise. It appears that we're going to get a mockumentary-style look at three couples, complete with shaky-cam and surveillance-esque footage of their interactions as well as confessional interviews done two-by-two on living-room couches. Claire and Phil Dunphy (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell) have three children ranging from elementary to high school. Their problem is parenting; Claire, who ran a little wild as a teenager, is determined to keep her fifteen-year-old daughter from making the same mistakes, and Phil believes he exists to be his kids' coolest friend. "If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half-naked, then I've done my job," Claire declares. "Our job," Phil amends. "Right, I've done our job," Claire corrects herself.
Our first glimpse of the problems they face in their wildly uneven partnership consists of Haley inviting a senior boy over to hang out, causing Claire to worry herself sick over what they're doing up in Haley's bedroom, while at the same time son Luke has to be punished for shooting his sister Alex with a BB pistol -- said punishment to consist of his dad shooting him with the BB pistol, just as Claire insisted when Phil made the mistake of giving Luke the gun. This leads to one of the best sequences in a stellar pilot, as Claire and Phil negotiate over when the punishment will take place: "I can't shoot him at 2, I'm showing a house at 2!"
The most stereotypical of the three couples are aging Jay (Ed O'Neill) and his young Columbian second wife Gloria (Sof'a Vergara). Ed worries about his disappearing youth, but at the same time expresses a curmudgeonly notion of masculinity and propriety while watching his stepson Manny write poems and pick flowers for his schoolboy crush on a sixteen-year-old mall kiosk worker. ("I gave her my heart, and she gave me a picture of myself as an old-time sheriff," Manny laments after his unsuccessful wooing.) Gloria's fiery Latin personality doesn't necessarily go over so well on the sidelines at Manny's soccer game, and Jay is frequently mortified by her lack of inhibition.
And then there's Mitchell and Cameron (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet), partners in a five-year relationship, who are bringing home their adopted Vietnamese baby Lily. Mitchell feels Cameron is too overt about the whole gay-it-up thing, but he is also very sensitive to the reflexive disapproval of society. On the plane flying home with Lily, he interprets a woman's passing comment about his new daughter as a slur -- "look at the baby with those cream puffs!" -- and launches into "the speech" ("Love knows no race, creed, or gender!") before Cameron points out that Lily is, in fact, holding two cream puffs.
The show ends on a heartwarming note of acceptance, but you can't take the cantankerous out of Ed O'Neill in one episode ... or one season, or one show. The tension between who, when we go there, has to take us in, and the independent selves we all want to grow up to be, should yield first-rate television, if the confident pacing and sharp performances of the pilot are a harbinger of things to come.
- Modern Family was created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, whose partnership began with last year's rather hidebound Back To You. It's kind of hard to believe that the two shows stem from the same pair of minds; Back To You felt like 1995, while Modern Family feels thoroughly 21st century in its embrace of the single-camera mockumentary format not as a gimmick, but as an opportunity for scenes that play out with naturalistic pacing.
- A lot of viewers are going to focus on Ty Burrell as Phil, the embarrassingly "cool" dad ("That's my thing, I surf the internet, I text ... LOL, laugh out loud; WTF, why the face"), and rightly so. He's a type that you can drop into almost any scene and generate great comedic moments. And check out the physical comedy in the scene where he takes Luke to the backyard to shoot him with the BB pistol (first compelling him to peel off some of his layers: "no jacket, one hat") and ends up shooting everyone in sight, including himself. The whip-pans of the single-camera style really carry some of the comic load here, too.
- I was a big fan of Jesse Tyler Ferguson in the unjustly-neglected 2006 CBS comedy The Class, and he's wonderful here as the uptight member of the same-sex couple. Appalled by a mural on the nursery wall featuring himself and Cameron as angels hovering over the crib, he demands, "Can you call André and have him paint something less gay? And by the way, we need to stop having friends with names like André."
- Phil is not only fake-cool, he's also socially clueless. "Lily," he muses as he coos over the Vietnamese baby. "Isn't that going to be hard for her to say?"
- The last line of the poem Manny writes to his crush: "I stand before you with only one agenda/To let you know my heart is yours, Feldman comma Brenda."
- I'll be here every week to see where Modern Family goes, and I'd be pleased as punch to have you join me.