Modern Family: A Poor Man’s (Attempt At) Arrested Development?

Modern Family is one of the most hyped new shows this fall. Did you watch last night’s premiere? The show follows three tiers of a (modern) family. There’s the middle-class long-married parents of three incipient-teenage children. There’s the grumpy patriarch who has remarried a much-younger, “fiery” hispanic woman. And there is the gay son (of the patriarch, brother of the mom) and his gay partner, who have just adopted a baby from Thailand. The cast is decent. The whole thing is filmed in the overused mockumentary style of our time, but the mockumentary style is overused because it works pretty well. The show seems to have pretty much everything it needs to be a great show.

So why isn’t it?

For one thing, Modern Family is a pretty fucking grandiose title for a TV show. Even All in the Family, a sitcom that purported to (and succeeded at) capture a historical moment in the development of American life played a little coy with the title. I mean, seriously? For one thing, there are millions of families that are not anything like this family, so you can relax with the sweeping relatability. Second of all, this is not a “modern” family. It’s a “contemporary” family. They’re completely grounded and entrenched in the world we live in now. People on the show are not especially open-minded or forward-thinking. A few of them are minorities, which I guess still counts as modernity? In 2009?

Speaking of the minorities: I think as smart, thoughtful people engaged with the world around us that we can stop being so proud of the world’s sluggish progress by hard-fought inches. I read somewhere that Modern Family is the first TV show that features a gay couple adopting a baby. That’s great. But that doesn’t make the show important or even particularly daring. What it does is show that we as a nation are ridiculous and small and mean. Just because something gross is going on (the systemic and aggressive discrimination against gay people) doesn’t make every tiny nod in the opposite direction a stunning breakthrough. We can do better than a gay couple on a brand new sitcom adopting a baby (for the purposes of making lots of jokes about how gays would decorate a nursery [SPOILER ALERT: they would decorate a nursery very GAY] and how gays self-righteous speeches about equality are annoying interruptions on otherwise enjoyable heterosexual plane rides). The whole thing reminds me of Kanye West thinking that he was doing the work of a SAINT by going on TV a few years ago and saying that hip hop was too homophobic. Uh, hip hop IS too homophobic. You’re not a hero for saying that, you’re just a person who knows facts. I’m NOT advocating for a sitcom that goes the extra activist mile and makes big bold political points. No one wants that. But I am saying that we can tone down the congratulatory rhetoric.

Anyway, the show does have some good points! I think Ty Burrell is pretty funny in it!

And there was one joke at the end of the episode that has gotten a lot of press, which I suppose is fair, because it is a very funny joke, and one obviously after my own heart.

But it was difficult to watch this show and not feel like it was a watered-down Arrested Development. The punchlines were a little softer, the pop culture references a little broader, the family dynamics a little less acidic. It was like Jay Leno Presents The Arrested Developments. But we already had an Arrested Development, and it was great. The fact that there is a slightly (or more than slightly) worse one now seems like no cause for celebration. And if this show turns into a huge commercial success where AD failed, it will be another reminder that this world was not made for us. I’m not saying I want this show to be canceled in order to prove some kind of larger point that no one even cares about. I hope this show has a long and successful run, and I wish the best for everyone involved. Millions of dollars and a Sea-Doo in every hot tub.

And if for some reason this show does not work out, there is always money in the banana stand.