The third season of Modern Family began on shaky ground, with the writers sending the extended Pritchett/Dunphy clan to a dude ranch, the type of wacky-location stunt that’s usually reserved for the fifth or sixth season of a dying sitcom. The episode’s nadir was a subplot in which Gloria (Sofía Vergara) gets a bad case of plugged ears on the plane, making her speak louder and screechier than ever. As is often the case with Modern Family, with its multiple subplots and characters, that piece of lazy comedy was counterbalanced by a segment where family patriarch Jay’s (Ed O’Neill) adult gay son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), anxious about adopting a baby boy, was paired with his dimwitted nephew, Luke (Nolan Gould), and taught the pleasures of blowing things up with firecrackers. The segment reinforced the show’s central premise: that the diversity of “modern” families is a strength, not a weakness, a point that the writers thankfully emphasize through humor rather than cheap sentimentality.
Subsequent episodes have been better, with the families back where they belong in bland, upscale suburbia, but they’re still uneven. Per usual, the writers allow each character equal screen time, so even if one storyline is disappointing, the entire episode doesn’t get bogged down. The episode “Phil on Wire” crossed the line into unfunny farce when Mitchell and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), each starving from a juice fast, have meltdowns at a business function, but in a much more effective narrative thread, Phil and Luke watch the documentary Man on Wire and become obsessed with tightrope walking: “Seeing a weird, wonderful little man pursuing his dream of walking on a tightrope made me think I could pursue my dream…of walking on a tightrope,” Phil intones to the camera.
In its first two seasons, Modern Family excelled at generating rapid-fire laughs while managing to balance no less than 11 regular characters, but the writers of Modern Family are beginning to rely too heavily on stunt episodes and celebrity cameos, like David Cross as a loony town councilman. In an era when cable TV writers can focus their talents on just 10 or 12 episodes at a time, 24 exceptional installments of a network comedy is an increasingly tall order, even for the creators of a show that remains the best family sitcom on TV.