The cult of Arrested Development went from triumph and goodness to insufferably thoughtless fandom in the time it takes most people to wipe the morning crust from their eyes. Yes, Arrested Development was a watershed moment in the evolution of the sitcom and television comedy, making incredibly original use of the reality-show aesthetic and culling together a stunning group of comedians who exuded tremendous confidence and chemistry. The problem was the excusing that went on in response to the series’s warped, erratic, and disastrously uneven final season, which openly suffered from the fatalistic pre-production news that the show was done for.
Every new sitcom that arrives now essentially either cops to the style of Arrested Development or goes back to The Honeymooners to get their template, and Modern Family, from its very inception, was obviously beholden to the former. In fact, some eight years after Arrested Development first bowed, Modern Family has announced itself clearly as that show’s true successor, boasting a similar cast of brilliant performers working within a loose, seemingly easy format, while also upping the ante in terms of emotional potency and character development.
The fact that Modern Family is a far more complex series, both in terms of character and humor, than Arrested Development ever was has largely to do with the chosen dispositions of the two shows. Arrested Development was a series caked in cynicism; every character, at one point or another, willingly engaged in odious and immoral activities, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t still stand as one of the funniest shows to come out of the aughts. Questionable behavior factors into Modern Family as well, but the effects of this sort of behavior are rarely sidestepped or easily excused, as in Arrested Development, by the fact that 90% of the characters on screen are uproariously awful.
Where Modern Family takes bigger risks is most prominently evident in how the show’s creators and writers treat the eldest member of the quasi-titular tribe, Jay Pritchett, beautifully cast and played by the great Ed O’Neil. Toward the end of the show’s stellar second season, in the exceptional “Boys’ Night” episode, Jay finds himself at a trendy bar with his son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, smart, sensitive, and deeply funny), Mitchell’s longtime companion, Cameron (scene-stealer Eric Stonestreet), and some of their more flamboyant friends, one of whom is played by Nathan Lane. Jay is hesitant to get in on the fun, but after a few strong cocktails he’s talking old movies and singing doo-wop with Mitchell’s friends, only to return to his quasi-homophobic self in the morning.
The episode openly notes the complexity of such a character, and the emotional rewards of seeing Jay unbound with Mitch, Cam, and their friends are immense. Other relationships are given similar depth, such as the married life of Jay’s daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen), and her idiot-savant husband, Phil (Ty Burrell, a comic revelation), which survives incessantly chirping smoke detectors, an earthquake, a disastrous second take at role playing, an existential crisis over their intellects, and their children walking in on them during anniversary sex. It’s a credit to the series that Mitch and Cam’s relationship is packed with moments that similarly imbue parental and marital mistakes with an ironclad sense of cause and effect and moral balance, such as when Cam’s mother comes to visit and when they try to get their adopted daughter, Lily, into a top-notch preschool.
If Sofía Vergara’s Gloria, Jay’s wife, doesn’t get as many emotionally resonant moments, she’s easily recognizable as the lifeblood of the series; Vergara’s energy and delivery as a performer are assured and unwavering. She has her roots in Lucille Ball, obviously, but the key to her character, as with many of the characters in the show, is that she rarely has the perfect answer and her successes are hard-won, and therefore much more fascinating to watch unfold. This even goes for the kids, from Rico Rodriguez’s Manny and Nolan Gould’s Luke to Sarah Hyland’s Haley and Ariel Winter’s Alex, who have maintained one of the more believable, nuanced sibling rivalries in recent memory.
The tempo that creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not that Christopher Lloyd) have set for these characters is a busy but smartly paced one, choreographed by a stable of talented directors and maintained by some very funny writers. There’s a deep understanding here that character outweighs plot contrivances and concepts of what each episode should be “about.” This should indeed explain the high caliber of guest stars that show up on the show (Matt Dillon, Shelley Long, and Chazz Palminteri, to name only three), but it also speaks volumes about Modern Family’s end game. Sure, Mitch and Cam’s relationship inevitably gives the show more societal weight than it necessarily wants, but the flow of the show, the movement and interactions of each of the three families within their homes and with their extended family, is such that societal and political issues are rarely trumpeted as causes for the show to take up, but rather issues that can be plumbed for humor laced with something approaching understanding. It makes every other comedy series seem like something you would scrape out of the bottom of a cornballer.
There’s nothing but good news to report about Fox’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of the second season of Modern Family. The show has an affinity for big colors and they are handled beautifully here, crisply rendered and eye-catching. The black levels are deep and inky and skin tones come across very nicely. Clarity is top notch and detail is consistently impressive, thanks largely to the fact that the show is shot on digital, making the visuals easier to maintain in the transfer. The audio is simple but handled impeccably well. The show uses non-diagetic sound sparingly, allowing dialogue, sound effects, and atmospheric noise to take up most of the soundtrack. The balance is fantastic, with dialogue clear and crisp in front, while sound effects and atmosphere blend beautifully in the back. A strong presentation all things considered.
The best thing here is a table reading of the "Strangers on a Treadmill" episode, which gives some insight into how the show comes together in terms of character and laughs. I also must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the gag reel and the extended scenes and interviews from the family, which are all hugely funny. Most of the other stuff is enjoyable but not particularly interesting, including a music video for Haley’s boyfriend’s band, the "Waiting for Oprah" featurette, and the "Modern Family Holiday" featurette. A video interview with Steve Levitan, a look at the production design, and a behind-the-scenes featurette centered on a flash mob scene are also included.
In the post-Arrested Development sitcom landscape, Modern Family clearly announces itself as the rightful heir to that show’s bejeweled throne.