Fan Death: Thoroughly Modern Run of the Mill-y

I quite enjoyed Modern Family, I watched all the episodes of the first two seasons, and they made me laugh. Nonetheless there’s several things about the show which irk me, and I’ve decided not to continue watching when it returns in the autumn.

And I figured that a discussion of why that is deserved no less than the mantle of Fan Death.

If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a mockumentary sitcom about family life. The patriarch- Jay- has two grown up children. Claire, his daughter, is married to a guy named Phil and they have three kids- Haley, Alex and Luke. Jay’s son Mitchell and his partner, Cameron, have an adopted daughter called Lily. Jay’s also remarried since his divorce to a (younger) Colombian woman, Gloria, who has a son named Manny.

So far, so good. It seems like an updated twist on the traditional sitcom. There’s wacky goings on and big make up scenes, but instead of being focussed on a nuclear family with 2.4 kids there’s an acknowledgement that familial relationships are likely to be more complicated than that. By including reconstituted families and a gay couple adopting there’s an increased sense of realism and relevance- and modernity.

However, upon closer examination it all seems so…conventional. In Jay and Gloria’s relationship there’s the classic old rich (and macho) guy with the young, hot wife. Claire, Phil and their kids present a traditional nuclear family- complete with a stay at home mother and a breadwinner father. Not to mention the fact that again the wife is much, much more attractive than her husband- exacerbated by the fact that Claire is incredibly slim and well-groomed for an apparently harried mother of three.

And while I appreciate the fact that Cameron and Mitchell’s relationship- and fatherhood of Lily- presents gay parents as a legitimate family structure, it’s fraught with problems. First off, they’re portrayed as stereotypically camp and over the top. They’re also meaner to each other than the other couples. And they’re not physically affectionate or even really allowed to discuss sex in the way that the other characters are.

Despite some superficial acquiescence, it still seems to be very focussed on traditional family structures- it’s about a family which originates from one clearly defined male head, with his first wife sidelined as a hysterical madwoman. There’s a lot of focus on Claire and Phil’s nuclear family, and the “modernity” of the show essentially boils down to one divorce and one adoption.

The concept of family is still defined very narrowly- and if it isn’t quite seen as a biological production unit, then certainly it’s focussed on creating and socialising new members. Including a couple who weren’t interested in having children (like Big and Carrie in Sex and the City 2, for example) could have been an interesting take on what exactly “family” means, and how it’s differentiated from child-rearing.

Furthermore, although it’s obviously a show about families, focussing almost exclusively on kin is limiting- and perhaps makes the characters seem less likeable. If there was more exploration of their friendships- balanced with their familial relationships- they’d seem more like composite characters and less like caricatures.

The idea of friends being the “family of the twenty-first century” has been important in several television shows. Spaced often explicitly stated the idea, Joss Whedon has said that every show he makes is about creating a family (which is obvious in Buffy, Angel, Firefly and- in a more complex way- Dollhouse), and it’s clearly a recurring theme in popular sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother– even before the characters started reproducing with each other. Almost ignoring relationships outside the family unit- although less so for the gay couple whose intimacy Modern Family shies away from- makes the show seem conservative and traditional. And, essentially, old-fashioned.

It also has the classic sitcom problem of being “rewind television” in that nothing ever seems to get properly resolved. Each episode will end in a satisfying fashion- the issues are discussed and there’s often a soggy group hug- but by the next episode the status quo seems to have been re-established, and the same motions are gone through again. It’s tiring and the lack of growth of the characters- and the repetition of their negative relations- can be unpleasant to watch.

This is in stark contrast to my favourite current sitcoms- How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and Community– which pay attention to story arcs and character development. Although How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory have had more seasons than Modern Family so far they weren’t so stagnated by the end of their second season, and Community in the same space of time has moved on dramatically from the way the characters were presented in the beginning. Likewise Arrested Development, a meta sitcom about a family, had over the top characters- but even the dumbest and most selfish of them weren’t repeating the exact same patterns of behaviour throughout the show.

And, while this isn’t a major gripe, the mockumentary style doesn’t really seem to make sense within the show’s confines. With the success of the American version of The Office this style seems to have gained popularity- I’m also not sure that it adds anything to Parks and Recreation either. Having characters free to express themselves to the camera outside of the narrative can create humour, but that could be conveyed in another way relatively easily- have them talk to a friend who’s outside of the situation, for example! I’d rather Modern Family spent time on moving away from presenting quite traditional family relationships than resting on its laurels for using an “innovative” faux-documentary technique that seems largely irrelevant.

I suppose the clue was really in the name though. The ‘modern’ in the title essentially lumps it in with things like Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (published in 1818) or Thoroughly Modern Millie (set in the 1920s). The very idea of modernity is, at this point, dated and television shows have had a distinctly postmodern flavour for the last decade or two- at least. I can appreciate why something relatively traditional can be comforting- but this show isn’t for me. (And apparently I’m not the only one…)

One thought on “Fan Death: Thoroughly Modern Run of the Mill-y

  1. Pingback: Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en? « Pop Culture Playpen

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