Going Nuclear

Now in its third season, ABC’s mockumentary Modern Family may seem groundbreaking, but its greatest strength is old-fashioned storytelling

I don’t know how many modern families watch Modern Family, but then one of the points of Modern Family is that it’s hard to tell what a modern family is anymore, let alone what it does. In my family I’m the only one who’s ever watched the show; our middle-school son went down the Facebook rabbit hole a year or two back, and our six-year-old girl determinedly surfs the swells among Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and the Disney Channel, during which time the rest of us pray for SpongeBob, settle for iCarly, or resign ourselves to Shake It Up. Being the family’s literate one, my wife doesn’t watch television much, preferring third world novels, though she’ll sit in now and then when I have on Jon Stewart. Like other modern families, we deserted the four national networks years ago, and like many families, our TV watching became factionalized never to cohere again, to the extent that it ever did. The ritual of families watching TV together passed into antiquity around the time I was my son’s age; that was when households tended to have a single television and when the choices of what to watch were manageable. It also was when parents tended to decide such selections. Some distant day anthropologists will consider as a landmark in humankind’s evolution—comparable to the capacity for destroying ourselves by nuclear obliteration—the adolescent gene’s newly emergent power to dictate nightly TV viewing. During our son’s most recent checkup, the doctor prefaced the usual warning he gives 13-year-olds about sex, drugs, and rock and roll with the question, “Do you know what the word ‘omnipotent’ means?” which he went on to explain is what teenagers think they are. Our son might well have answered, “Yes, ‘omnipotent’ is when I inform my mother and father what we’re watching on the 50-inch flat screen.”

Off the top of my head I don’t remember a lot of scenes where Modern Family’s extended family watches TV together, which in itself may make the family as modern as do the age differences, ethnic differences, and sexual preference differences. The patriarch, Jay, watches football with his gay son-in-law, Cameron, and Christmas movies with his 11-year-old stepson by his recent marriage to (much younger) South American bombshell Gloria. Jay’s son, Mitch, and Cam—raising their adopted Vietnamese baby—are too busy to watch TV, as are Jay’s daughter, Claire, her husband, Phil, and their three kids. Claire and Phil’s family constitutes the one domestic unit whose demographics are the same as that of the 1950s family-sitcom template Father Knows Best, though it probably should be pointed out that TV has been subverting this prototype from All in the Family’s politically mismatched generations to Arrested Development’s menagerie of dysfunction. This “normal” family also is the most neurotic and, to many families in the audience, cringe inducing by virtue of sheer familiarity. If your kid is a teenager, you may recognize in Claire and Phil the psychological self-flagellation that leaves contemporary parents no less clueless than were their own clueless parents who didn’t overthink everything. Since my family includes a small girl from Africa, the naive white liberalism with which Mitch and Cam strive to preserve their daughter’s “culture” isn’t new to me, either. Striking closer to home with aging hipster fathers who like to flatter themselves that they’re the “cool” dads, Phil renders parenthood equal parts haplessness and narcissism; by contrast the brand of denial practiced by old-school dad Jay begins to make sense, even take on a kind of nobility. Asked why he sweeps every problem under the rug, Jay answers, “Because that way no one gets hurt.”

If you measure Modern Family by how groundbreaking or funny it is, the series’ acclaim and Emmy Awards are probably excessive. The mockumentary conceit, with a structure as episodic as any sitcom’s, already is recognizable from shows like The Office, and while certainly there are laugh-out-loud moments, with a squirm factor that’s modest compared with the wall-to-wall mortifications of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the tension between affection and condescension makes it a little harder to give oneself over to the hilarity. Because each story feels genuinely informed by what’s come before, however, the characters continue to deepen, and for a show whose premise is so dependent on types, the writing under the auspices of creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd and the ensemble acting by Ed O’Neill, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, and Sofía Vergara are strong enough to blow out the stereotypical parameters. On first introduction Cam is as queenly a gay figure as any in mass entertainment since La Cage aux Folles, but his kindness and his empathy—tortured as it is and self-absorbed enough to dredge up every childhood hurt—not to mention his football fixation and college gridiron career, eventually steamroll the flamboyance. And the kids in particular are coming into their own; maybe it’s coincidence, but in family sitcoms going back at least as far as O’Neill’s last series, Married…with Children, the kids started getting smarter than the parents about the same time that kids in the audience stopped watching. Set up to be the pudgy target of a spitball hailstorm, trying to negotiate his sweet new preoccupation with girls, Gloria’s 11-year-old son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), has proved the family’s wisest member. On the occasion of his 12th-birthday party he gently chides the peevish and stressed-out assembled family for being more childish than he is. (Probably because birthdays call for everyone paying more attention to someone other than themselves, they especially are fiascoes in the Pritchett/Dunphy/Tucker conglomerate.)

Modern Family’s third season begins this month. Besides the fact that every kid is a year older, which means he or she is almost a different kid, potentially the most significant change in the family is an addition, what with the poolside chat between Mitch and Cam at the end of season two about adopting another child—a boy this time, from who knows where. Since there’s still a box or two on the census form left to be checked, the family may become more modern yet. As it does, it resembles more and more the families of five centuries ago, before that blip on the time line of history known as the nuclear family that traditionalists like to think is so traditional; extended families were the rule then, when there was safety in numbers. In a century without much rhyme or reason so far, security remains a pretty good rationale. But more than that, the postnuclear family has become the expression of a society in which, at least once we grow up, we have more choices about the families we want to be part of. That the Pritchett/Dunphy/etceteras are more likable when they’re together than they are individually may mean they’ve chosen well, even if they’re no more likely than any other family to watch their own show.
Photograph courtesy ABC/ Mario Perez