In its fifth season, Modern Family appears to have finally arrived at the depressing and predictable low point toward which it’s been trending for the past two years. What was once an acutely observed comedy about family dynamics has turned into a shrill pastiche of stereotypical characterizations and superficial banter lacking both feeling and wit. The show’s initial appeal was the manner in which it pinpointed a series of generational and cultural differences specific to modern American life, put archetypical representatives of these differences in the same family, and structured episodes around the conflicts (and comedy) that arose from their misperceptions of each other. Though effective, this premise had a built-in expiration date: As they got to know each other, the members of the Pritchett-Dunphy clan inevitably came to accept—or resign themselves to—each other’s quirks, and as such their clashes lost immediacy and became repetitive.
That problem has now reached critical mass. There’s nothing new here, just the same rehashing of personal quirks and familiar clichés: Jay (Ed O’Neill), like many middle-aged men of money, enjoys scotch with lunch followed by an afternoon nap; his Latina trophy wife, Gloria (Sofía Vergara), is always late because she wants to make an eye-catching entrance; son Manny (Rico Rodriguez), an aspiring lothario, makes hopeless passes at his nannies; Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), Jay’s prospective son-in-law, is hyper-sensitive and prone to tears, and Cam’s partner, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), is an uptight nag; and so on. The writers’ halfhearted attempts at generating humor or pathos end up serving as reminders of more original inventions from earlier seasons. When the family tells Cam that he’s unusually sensitive to criticism, he runs crying into the bathroom, proving their point. Funny, but his eventual reconciliation with the family doesn’t carry much emotional weight given that we’ve seen this scene several times before, and likely will again.
Past seasons possessed an unapologetic outlandishness, but rather than continuing to place their quirky characters in extreme and unexpected situations, the writers seem content crafting rather conventional conflicts that elicit only the most predictable responses from their on-screen creations. When Gloria hires a male nanny (played by Workaholics’s Adam DeVine), Jay and Manny are forced to bond with the man, who tricks them into exercising and eating protein shakes, leading to an expected barrage of complaints. When Cam and Mitchell inadvertently wear the same outfit to dinner, their evening out devolves into an argument in which they assume their typical poses: emotional Cam’s lip quivering and judgmental Mitch snapping at him impatiently. The characters on Modern Family have always been clichés, and that’s the point of the show, but the scenarios through which they grapple with their insecurities and each others’ pet peeves have long lost their inventiveness and surprise.