Thursday, April 21, 2011

"'Modern Family' - Year One vs. Year Two"

I caught a break on this one. Last Wednesday, ABC aired two episodes of Modern Family, a new episode from Season Two, followed later that night by a rerun from Season One. It’s like the Fates were saying to me,

“We know you won’t do any research on this, and you’ll end up writing some unsatisfying generalizations, so we, the Fates, are giving you these Season One and Season Two episodes to compare, with no effort on your part whatsoever.”

(Like that makes up for two excruciating paper cuts I received this week on consecutive days, but okay, thank you. Just stop it with the paper cuts.)

Good comedy…and good drama…and good music…maybe good everything… depends fundamentally on the element of surprise. Skillful execution is also a factor (as in the terrific Modern Family episode called “Halloween”, which is admittedly a Second Season episode and my point is that Season One was better, but I was hoping to get that anomalous exception out of the way, so you’ll have forgotten about it by the end.) Although you could say that skillful execution is simply the external manifestation of the surprise, which derives originally from the idea.

(Let me quickly apologize for the previous sentence. I was just saying that the idea and the execution are not separate, but are two parts of the same process.)

Modern Family is constructed out of three micro-family clichés – a Yuppie family with their three (one hyper-social, one brainy and one dufus) children, a nouveau riche old guy with a bombshell, Latina trophy wife, and a doting, bordering on overprotective, gay couple with an adopted Asian baby – under a macro-family umbrella. The show succeeds or fails on the basis on how artfully this panoply of clichés is manipulated.

My argument here, as exemplified by the two episodes handed to me by the Fates, is that during Modern Family’s First Season, the writers manipulated its familiar elements in a more surprising, and as a result more laugh-inducing manner, than during the Second Season, when they didn’t.

Now you may argue that what I’m really talking about here is the “Fatigue Factor.” By its Second Season, I had become tired of Modern Family’s formerly enjoyable act, and as a result, the lacked some of its original, comedic punch.

This is possible. It has happened to me before on other shows. It got tired of Three’s Company after the first episode.

But I don’t think that’s the case here. I think the show really lost some miles off its fastball. But before I present my irrefutable evidence, allow me a short digression to acknowledge the sui generis character on the show.


Manny is a pre-teen, plus-sized, Latin dandy, with style and wisdom far beyond his dozen or so years. Since Manny’s character is an original comic creation, he wears far better than his less uniquely conceived co-characters. There have been numerous episodes where I have found myself laughing exclusively at him.

You can almost feel Modern Family’s very good writers, suddenly sprung from crafting variations on the predictable, licking their chops as they’re thinking up funny lines and perspectives for the irrepressible Mr. Manny. The process feels less pressured. The results,

More surprising.

Okay, back to the inter-seasonal comparison.

One example – but I believe is persuasively demonstrative of my point. (Unlike the “Halloween” episode, which isn’t.)

Perhaps the most prominent cliché-balloon on Modern Family is Cameron. I feel uncomfortable saying that Cameron’s a gay stereotype, for fear of engaging in gay stereotyping by saying so. But that’s how he comes off. So if you want to blame somebody, blame the show, not the viewer.

Though Modern Family is constructed to tell three stories per episode – one involving each of the micro-families – I will focus on the “Cameron” story in the Season One and Season Two episodes, to underscore the contrast. Okay, here we go. I hope this works. I’ve got a lot riding on it.

In the Season One episode, Cameron offers his services as a replacement for the departed drummer in his teenaged niece’s boyfriend’s band. In the Season Two episode, Cameron has enthusiastically volunteers to fill in as director for his nephew’s annual, school musical.

You see the difference there? “Offers his services” versus “enthusiastically volunteers”? And, more tellingly, from the cliché standpoint, “drummer” versus “musical.” I will not belabor this point, other than to say that “Playing the drums” is unlikely to rate nearly as high as “Musicals ”on a survey entitled, “What gay people really enjoy.”

Ergo, “drummer”?

A considerably bigger surprise.

Less comedically original in the Season One story: Cameron turns out to be a really good drummer. More comedically original: When the moment comes for his drum solo, instead of the traditional eight or so bars, Cameron drums away interminably, adamantly refusing to “give it back” to the band.

By contrast, in the “school musical” episode, Cameron invokes “Sondheim”, throws a Fosse-like “Power Fit”, and during the performance, everything in the production goes “hilariously” awry.

Ho, and


Modern Family’s First Season was special, because the writers were able to think beyond the stereotypical box. The Second Season (though considerably less so in the “Halloween” episode), they got lazy.

Or tired.

Or burnt out.

Or I’m wrong.

It’s hard to maintain a series’ consistency. I know. On the only season we did of Best of the West, an L.A. Times critic called the show “uneven.” It hurt, but he was right. (It hurt, because he was right.) And that was just one season.

Modern Family is fated for a happier journey. A longer run. Awards recognition. And a syndication bonanza. I just hope that journey includes a “second wind” of First Season-like surprises.


YEKIMI said...

It sort of irks me that people complain about Cameron as being a "stereotype". I know several gay people and quite a few make Cameron look butcher than the Bounty paper towel lumberjack and others, well, you wouldn't know they were gay in a billion years unless they told you they were.

Mac said...

Well I hope it does get its mojo working once again. That warm, inclusive, accessible comedy (that stays smart and sharp) is very, very hard to do. I think it started so well it deserves to run and run, and I hope this will be seen as just an early 'wobble' along the way.

Lord Lillis said...

I don't watch Modern Family but that doesn't stop me from doing research about it. This is one of the many bizarre side-effects of when you have a pregnant wife who can't get to sleep

From the description the first series episode is "Travels with Scout" and the second series episode is "The Musical Man". Now, since I read this blog I know sometimes the credits don't give credit where credit is due. But both episodes are credited as being written by Paul Corrigan & Brad Walsh. Corrigan & Walsh are tied with Steven Levitan at seven for number of scripts written (Steve Levitan wrote the pilot).

So here's a question for the master: could it be that these scribes are getting tired and falling back on cliché? Or are the credits worthless as a description of who wrote what.

Me, as I said, I don't watch Modern Family. I'm still going through the back episodes of Nanny and the Professor

Neal... said...

Interesting stuff Earl, and I now have some authoritative material to use next time we're watching the show and, after both of us laughing several times through it, my wife says to me at the end 'that was a good one' and I say 'nnnyeahhhh...'

And interesting that you pick up on Cameron and that instead of taking and then twisting the stereotype that they're just playing it up now. I had been wondering whether it was a case of they're getting such great performances from the actor that they're trying to find more outrageous things for him to do -- that in a way he's so good that they can't not use him.

So thanks for answering my question, and in return I feel I should answer one of yours. I always assume that waiters who say 'excellent choice' are being patronisingly sarcastic. Therefore the only proper response to one saying that to your dinner companion is to stand up and give him a poke in the snoot.

We don't eat out much these days.