Tuesday, October 12, 2010
On DVD: "Modern Family: The Complete First Season"
Mitchell: "She's going to be all judgmental and condescending."
Cameron: "She's your family. Of course she's going to be all judgmental and condescending."
Steven Leviathan and Christopher Lloyd's Modern Family may not be the most innovative comedy on television, nor (Emmy notwithstanding) the best. But it may very well be the most likable one. And yet, it never sops for easy emotion or sympathy--it's a show with edges, though they're soft ones. It assembles a large cast of charming characters, assembled into nuclear and non-traditional family formations, and lets them bounce off each other, often with explosively funny results. Many episodes end with a little lesson learned, but the show's writers are skillful enough to quietly puncture those moments of solemnity--a slick way to have their cake and eat it too.
The show is a documentary-style family comedy, focusing on the Pritchett clan. Wealthy Jay (Ed O'Neill) is the patriarch; he is still in the early years of his second marriage to fiery but affectionate Gloria (Sofia Vergara), a Columbian beauty with a son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez) from her previous marriage. Jay's daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to self-proclaimed "cool dad" Phil (Ty Burrell), and they have three kids: popular Haley (Sarah Hyland), brainy Alex (Ariel Winter), and Luke (Nolan Gould), who's a little, um... different. And then there's Jay's gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who, as the series begins, has just adopted a Vietnamese baby with his long-time partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet).
The construction of this rather convoluted family tree is an initial masterstroke that pays off throughout the season; in terms of creating conflicts and misunderstandings, the multi-generational, ethnically and sexually diverse character base is a gift that keeps on giving. The writers take some time to find their footing in this regard; though every episode has laughs, the show doesn't really hit its stride until the fifth episode, "Coal Digger," which gathers the entire clan at Jay and Gloria's for a barbecue and TV football game, puts several different dynamics into play, and sends everyone crashing into each other. Throughout the rest of the year, the large family gathering or event is a reliably compelling affair--see Luke's birthday party in the "Fizbo" episode, with its clever flashback construction and Rube Goldberg-style payoff gag, or "Airport 2010," which tracks the family's adventures in and out of the airport terminal while trying to just get the hell out of town.
On the heels of The Office and Parks and Recreation, the laugh-track free, interviews-and-handheld mockumentary style initially comes off as a bit of a rip-off. But the show eventually manages to nip and tuck the format into its own framework. The use of an interview question posed to various cast members at the beginning of each episode, which then serves as a thematic table-setter for the 20 minutes that will follow, is an effective device--and one that makes each episode's wrap-up feel organic, even when they're stretching for it. (Some of the closing voice-overs have a too on-the-nose, late-period Scrubs quality to them.) And as on The Office, the interviews aren't just used for storytelling shortcuts, but frequently to provide counterpoint and laughs.
The performers are equally matched, and quickly gel into a robust comic ensemble. The skill and nuance of O'Neill's work as Jay will surprise those who only know him as Al Bundy (though fans of David Mamet have caught flashes of his greatness for years now)--he can play the pathos without playing down to the audience, and his comic timing is lickety-split. Bowen, who has been a crush object since clear back on Ed (can we get a DVD release of that one, please?), pulls off the tricky maneuver of playing an occasionally pushy type-A personality without sacrificing a grain of her sunny charisma. Burrell isn't doing the most original character work on the show (he's basically doing Michael Scott as a father of three), but he does it with energy and finesse. Vergara, Ferguson, and Stonestreet are likewise playing variations on fairly familiar types, but they manage to only occasionally fall into caricature--though we could have done without Ferguson's shrieking, scared-sissy reaction to a pigeon in his home, the continued peeling of the layers in Stonestreet's Cam (sure, he loves showtunes and flowers, but he's also a diehard football fan--and former player) and his giggly self-confidence ("People love the Cam Show! It's appointment viewing!") are hard to resist. The child actors are all strong as well, though occasionally unconvincing in their line readings, which too frequently fall into the "sitcom kids who talk in punch lines" trap.
Modern Family's first season goes down easily; the show is funny, punchy, fast-paced, and well-acted. But it is a show that too often plays it safe (and I'm not just talking about the lack of PDA between Mitchell and Cam); at this point in its run, given the choice between the easy punch line and the trickier but potentially more rewarding follow-up, the writers pick the easy punch line every time. This is not to say it's not a fun, entertaining half-hour, or capable of some inventiveness (the slo-mo home destruction, scored to Cam's wedding singing of "Ave Maria," is unexpected and terrific). But to a pair of fresh eyes, the show's Emmy win as Outstanding Comedy Series feels a bit premature (particularly when Community wasn't even nominated). It's a good show, but not a great one. Not yet, anyway.
"Modern Family: The Complete First Season" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.