There was a lot of pressure for Modern Family to perform in its second season after the runaway success of its Emmy-winning first season. Sticking closely to the three-sitcoms-in-one structure that won it so much praise last year (one about a gay couple raising their adopted child, one about an older man and his young, beautiful Latina wife, and one about a nuclear family that constantly teeters on the brink of cartoonish chaos), Modern Family continues to balance frenzied slapstick with wit and heart, featuring one of the best ensemble casts on television.
The show plays with the audience’s expectations, taking common sitcom archetypes, like the effete homosexual, the dumb kid, and the loony foreigner, and turning them on their heads. Cam and Mitchell (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) both play to gay stereotypes and break them at the same time, especially Cam, who, with his paisley wardrobe and touchy emotions, counters Mitchell’s assertion that gays always get picked last in gym class with a confident “I always got picked first. I could throw a dodge ball through a piece of plywood.” The couple has even grown from seeming like asexual roommates in the first season to an actual romantic couple this season, kissing included.
Claire (Julie Bowen) admits to the camera that she doesn’t think her husband is funny, only to have him say the same thing about her later; Gloria (Sofía Vergara) bristles at Jay’s (Ed O’Neill) constant ribbing of her native Colombia as being backward and goat-infested, but when he makes amends and books tickets to visit her hometown, she privately confesses to the camera that her village actually is pretty backward and goat-infested. Small bits like this reveal the frustration and dishonesty that goes on beneath the surface of every family.
But Modern Family is more than just the odd funny line, which comes out in the utter chaos that follows in the wake of the three clans coming together. In a recent episode, a Halloween-obsessed Claire sets up a demanding haunted house production in her living room and forces her reluctant relatives to be her cast members. But after a rough day in which Mitchell goes to work dressed as Spider-Man when nobody else is in costume, Jay and Gloria argue over her dodgy English, and Cam struggles with the memory of a traumatic Halloween as a kid, none of them feel quite up to jumping through Claire’s elaborate hoops. Of course, the funhouse turns into a total disaster with mistimed sound effects, a decapitated head (played by Cam) that can’t stop crying about the one Halloween he fell over and peed his pants, and Gloria as a witch who speaks in an off-putting, toneless American accent just to spite her husband. The show’s interweaving stories collide in a mess of frenzied slapstick without feeling zany just for the sake of it.
Even in the Halloween episode’s corny-sounding resolution, where everyone gets over their own troubles just so Claire can have her night of scaring neighborhood kids, Modern Family makes the sweet palatable, managing to be warm and heartfelt without making you sick to your stomach. Most family comedies lay the bickering on pretty thick, and, in that respect, Modern Family really doesn’t stray too far from such shows. But these types of shows usually work their conflicts out in as saccharine a way as possible—that “aw” moment designed to tug the old heart strings, and prove that, in the end, we’re all one big happy whatever. Producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd work around this by making cutesy family moments part of the punchlines.