I was at a friend’s wedding this summer, and it was the second time around for both him and his bride. In a small conversation at the end of the evening, after most of the guests had gone, I heard her telling her young sons that – great news! – they now had yet another house to live in. The kids looked slightly pained; an added piece to their already somewhat fractured routine.
And then she said, “You know, it’s like on ‘Modern Family,’ ” referring to the sitcom on which diversions from the traditional family are the norm. Instantly, both kids smiled, acceptance playing on their faces, happily reminded that life’s twists can indeed be viewed through a comic lens. We are all characters, “Modern Family” suggests, and even situations that aren’t quite ideal can resolve into warmth and humor.
My TV critic ears perked right up. I love to stumble across those moments when the medium has a healing impact, when a series can make a complicated situation a little less stressful and give a positive sense of order to the chaos of the everyday. So often we hear from those attacking screen violence, hyper-grim procedurals, and the likes of “Modern Family” for its perceived social agendas — Google “Modern Family” and “poisonous” for a taste. The negative influences of TV are a cultural mantra, particularly for those who don’t watch it. How nice to recall the upside, the sweet consolations of popular TV fiction, the way a silly sitcom can help a kid sleep at night.
The moment also reminded me of how glad I am that “Modern Family” is, arguably, the comedy of our time. The facts support that label; the show is a ratings winner and an Emmy staple — it has won best comedy four seasons in a row — and last year it went into syndication, often a moment when a comedy officially becomes part of our nation’s bloodstream. Just as we look back on “Seinfeld” and “Friends” as emblems of the 1990s, “Modern Family” will somehow speak to the future of this decade’s state of affairs. I’m guessing the takeaways will have something to do with reintegration of family units, the acceptance of gay families, and an updating of relatively wholesome humor.
I don’t mean to say that the ABC show is as sharp as ever. “Modern Family” has taken plenty of beatings in recent years, some of them from me. It premiered in 2009, and at this point it sometimes lapses into a state of creative stasis and rehash. The comedy continues to be character-based, which is so much better than one-liner-based; but still, the character quirks can be tired, even as the characters lives’ do evolve to some extent.
Gloria’s accent, Cam’s queenliness, Phil’s dorkiness, they’ve all been done to death. That’s the norm for network sitcoms whose writers have to fill up some 22 episodes per year. The well runs dry, no matter how well-acted and designed the characters may be. That “Seinfeld” wasn’t a complete and utter mess after nine seasons and 180 half-hours (my opinion; some think it was) is something of a modern miracle.
After my friend’s wedding, though, I feel compelled to once again celebrate this show for its stealth approach. “Modern Family” is an old-fashioned comedy in so many ways. It’s not edgy in the least; the writers, led by Steven Levitan, have never been out to make overt moral challenges or test boundaries. It’s not making big points about accepting contemporary family life. It doesn’t put viewers on the defensive. But then it is constructed around those various kinds of family. Its social and cultural arguments are built into its structure. The scoops of vanilla sit atop some crunchy, nutty wafers.
I can’t say I think it should win a fifth best comedy prize at the Emmy Awards on Aug. 25. I favor “Veep” and “Orange Is the New Black,” both of which are fresher. But “Modern Family” nonetheless deserves its due. It’s one of mainstream TV’s worthy ambassadors.
Cameron and Mitchell get married:Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.