In ABC’s Modern Family, the funniest new sitcom of the season, the titular family is an extended one. Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen play Phil and Claire, a suburban couple with three children; Claire’s father has recently married a much younger Latina bombshell and Claire’s gay brother has just adopted a baby girl with his partner. A lesser show would have focused on the nuclear family, with wacky interludes and complications brought on by the unconventional secondary characters, but what is refreshing (and truly modern) about Modern Family is how all of its characters are given equal time and importance. And by extension, how all of the actors are given an opportunity to shine in their respective roles.
It’s a testament to the strong writing that, six episodes in, my favorite character has changed several times. Ty Burrell has been consistently funny as Phil, a cheerful dad completely oblivious not only to the embarrassment he causes himself but to the embarrassment he piles onto his wife and children. As he says to the camera at one point (the show is shot in the faux-documentary style of The Office): “Claire likes to say that you can be part of the problem, or part of the solution, but I happen to believe that you can be both.” He delivers the line with pride, yet the endearing way he causes problems, then tries to fix them, makes him both the fleeting heart of the show and its most clichéd character.
Other standouts include Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet as new parents Mitchell and Cameron. Neither is defined by their gayness, but they are not made to act straight to prove a point either. Mitchell is buttoned-up and anxious while Cameron is big and boisterous, a man who loves to eat, loves football, and who presents his adopted daughter to a family gathering while wearing an African robe and playing “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. My current favorite character, however, is Manny (Rico Rodriguez), the 11-year-old son of Gloria (Sofía Vergara), the new wife of the family’s patriarch (Ed O’Neill, both gruff and decent). Manny is an old soul, a kid who drinks coffee to honor his Colombian heritage, and who would rather have a heart-to-heart with Claire than play with her kids.
The creators of the show, sitcom veterans Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, have stumbled onto a winning formula with Modern Family. It’s comedy that combines some of the hug-free, ironic stylings of shows like The Office and Arrested Development with the sentimentalism of more traditional family sitcoms (read: CBS). Most of the episodes so far have ended with a simulacrum of a group hug, an acknowledgement that, even though they don’t always get along, this family loves one another. So far, these moments have worked on the show, but the formula could get tired.
One of the show’s most original jokes came at the end of the fourth episode, titled “The Incident.” At a large family dinner, Phil and Claire’s teenage daughter’s boyfriend sings a cringe-inducing, sexually inappropriate song he has penned for the 15-year-old Haley (Sarah Hyland). The entire family is mortified. But in the final moments of the episode, there is a brief montage where we see varying characters getting ready for bed, each humming the awful but catchy song, its raunchy lyrics caught in their heads. It’s a throwaway moment but it’s also telling: Families are disparate individuals forced to share common experience—both good and bad. The moment is as touching as a sitcom hug, but much, much funnier.