September 26, 2013

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Modern Family”


MODERN FAMILY:  Wednesday 9PM on ABC

MODERN FAMILY has now won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy in each of its four years on the air, putting it one behind Frasier‘s record-setting pace.  The TV Academy nominates smaller, more complex shows like Louie, Girls and Veep, but its heart is with Modern Family, and it’s easy to see why.  Along with The Big Bang Theory, it’s the last of the true big-tent network comedy smashes–and of the two, it’s the more nuanced and accomplished, at its best an expert mix of sharp comic writing, silliness and sentiment.

After four years, some of the show’s new-car smell is fading, both in the ratings (down to the mid-3s last season–still a big hit to be sure, but no longer a dominant one) and in its content.  Unlike more ambitious comedies, Modern Family isn’t really interested in having its characters evolve, so the large cast pretty much goes through its paces the same way week after week, and after a while even the reversals become easy to anticipate.

Tonight’s Season 5 premiere included two unrelated episodes, and they showed Modern Family at close to its peak and at its more predictable.  The first half-hour, written by Executive Producer Jeffrey Richman and directed by Jeff Bogardus, was built around June’s Supreme Court decision permitting gay marriage in California.  Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are immediately primed to marry, but which one of them will propose to the other?  Each makes his own secret plan, Cam’s more extravagant and Mitchell’s more modest, and they call on the rest of the family to help out, which causes both Jay and Gloria (Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara) and Phil and Claire (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) to recall their own proposals.  Meanwhile, the Dunphys try to manipulate their children (and each other) for some alone time during the summer, and the Pritchetts cope with Manny’s (Rico Rodriguez) first trip away by himself, to visit Gloria’s family in Colombia.  It was sweet and funny, and ended beautifully, with Cam and Mitchell both kneeling to fix a flat tire on a hill overlooking the city, and spontaneously accepting each other’s unspoken proposal.

The second episode, written by Executive Producers Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh, and directed by series co-creator Steven Levitan, was more scattershot.  The concept was first days, with Manny and Luke (Nolan Gould) starting high school, Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) beginning first grade, and Claire going to work for Jay at his closet company.  Meanwhile, Phil and Gloria find themselves cast as extras in a reverse mortgage commercial, Cam is briefly an AP History teacher for Alex’s (Ariel Winter) class (he dresses up as George Washington), and Haley (Sarah Hyland) flirts with Mitchell’s boss (guest star Justin Kirk).  It was a lot of territory to cover in 22 minutes, and felt like a collection of sketches.  Some of them were inconsistent (Claire, depicted as a cold, unromantic fish in the first episode, was here desperate to make friends, to the point of the worst Christopher Walken imitation– “Walk-In Closets,” get it?–in history) and others way too obvious, like Cam’s George Washington garb and Mitchell’s finicky insistence on discussing rental agreements with his boss.  Even a second-tier Modern Family has some gems (young Anderson-Emmons is something of a savant, with one of the best deadpans on TV, and her serving as Mitchell’s temp secretary was a hoot), and the show was still more watchable than most current comedies could hope to be.

Contract disputes aside, Modern Family will likely continue along its path for years, with ratings that, while diminished, are still more than good enough.  Even when it eventually becomes an Emmy also-ran, it’s likely always to be in the running.  At this point, the cast isn’t getting challenged much, but they’re a terrific ensemble, and the scripts flow with a high degree of professionalism.  It may not be an exciting show anymore, let alone as thrilling as the niche shows it beats every year for awards, but it’s still a model of the sit-com craft.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."