Modern Family | When family grows up
Family is a conventional social construct that can be formed by a mother, a father and one or more children. Or two fathers and a stepchild. But also a father, a stepmother and the child she had from the former husband. Or all those things combined, and even more. Modern Family tells the story of this faceted tangle: it shows what happens when a family grows up, uniting different human hearts in a unique type of home.
The sitcom was produced by 20th Century Fox and aired from 2009 to 2020. Through the years, it received twenty-two Primetime Emmy Awards, including five consecutive awards for Best Outstanding Comedy Series (matching Frasier‘s record) and two for Best Outstanding Writing for Comedy Series. In 2012 it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Comedy and from 2011 to 2014 it obtained Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. Moreover, in 2013 the Writers Guild of America enlisted it 34th between the 101 best written TV show.
The more, the merrier
The family’s forefather is Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill), who got married a second time to Gloria (Sofía Vergara). She’s Colombian and much younger than him, and she also has a young son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Gloria is even younger than Claire (Julie Bowen), Jay’s first child. Claire and her husband Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) have three children: Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Last but not least, Claire’s brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), lives with his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet). They are the foster parents of Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), a Vietnamese baby. The show follows all of their happy and sad moments. The fights, the celebrations, and reconciliations. They soon discover, as a family, they’ll be there for each other no matter what.
As other show like The Office and What We Do In The Shadows, Modern Family shifts from the typical sitcom genre into a mockumentary. Everyday life scenes alternate with interviews to the characters, either single or in small groups. Breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, the audience perceives characters as real people. Creators Christopher Lloyd e Steven Levitan took the main idea from their own families. As Lloyd affirmed to The Guardian:
So we thought, how about what we talk about between ourselves – our kids and the idiotic things that happen in our households? Is there a way to do a family show that makes it a bit more real? That got us to the documentary-style idea.Lloyd and Levitan to The Guardian
As much as any character reflects a society cliché, they all look like common people. They have flaws, talents, fears, and shame. By talking to the camera, they offer a glance on their inner reality although often looking nothing short of a caricature.
A place to feel home
Other than a reflection on families, the show also gave a new take on the concept of parenting. Jay and Claire have both a traditional family; but while Claire’s marriage survives through time, Jay ends up divorcing. When he marries Gloria and becomes Manny’s stepfather, he changes both as husband and as parent, proving it’s possible to learn from one’s own mistakes. Still, he’s a different father if compared to Phil, or to Mitch and Cameron.
Jay belongs to an older generation and he presents himself as “traditional father”, strong and insensitive. It’s always difficult for him to show love to his kids, while it’s seems much easier to lavish affection to his dog. In opposition, Mitch tries to be tender father: he and Cameron were outsiders and want Lily to feel loved and accepted. Phil, on his side, tries to be a friends for his kids, hoping that so they’ll be sincere to him. They all try to be perfect parents and they all fail, proving that teaching lessons is not as important as showing real love.
Many family shows follow a set of dysfunctional kins. It’s the case of Mom, with two women as protagonists who were both drug addicted and got pregnant at a very young age. Or Shameless, in which the Gallaghers have daily struggle with Frank, their father figure. In Modern Family, every aspect of their everyday life somehow echoes the ones of the general audience. The Pritchett family members are able to learn from their past: when Jay discovers Mitch suffers for never receiving a hug from him, he becomes more affectionate to Manny. Stereotypes aren’t stressed, but used to create comedy and comparisons to reality. So as in real life, in Modern Family anyone grows up changing and remaining always the same.
The human family
Until 1956, when the Hays code was revisioned, shows weren’t allowed to display couples formed by people coming from different cultures. It was called “misgeneration” and considered a taboo. The first interracial couple ever appeared on television was protagonist in I Love Lucy. It was 1951 and the male protagonist was Hispanic; though, some said he was a white man with Colombian ancestry. Only in 1968 Star Trek aired the first kiss in American television history between a Caucasian and an Afro-American actor. While in UK it already happened in 1962, with the play You in Your Small Corner. However, Star Trek‘s kiss created a little clamor, but it’s now considered a watershed. According to Eric Deggans, national television critic, that kiss suggested the possibility of “a future where these issues were not such a big deal.”
During following years, more and more intercultural couples appeared in TV shows, from The Jeffersons to Parenthood. Pritchett family counts various ethnic group: Gloria and Manny are from Colombia and Lily was born in Vietnam. Some exponents from the latin community pointed out that Gloria is rich in stereotype: from the first episode to the last, she remains loud and colorful. But Sofia Vergara pointed out she took inspiration from her mother, underlining there’s nothing wrong in acting a stereotype:
I am grateful for the opportunity because the gringos have let me in with this strong accent I have. Eight years ago nobody had an accent like this on television.Interview to Time
Furthermore, Jay and Gloria aren’t just an interracial couple: what defines them is the fact they are soulmates. So as Lily and Manny grow up as American of foreign origins. The presence in series of inter-ethnic families sensitize audience showing their existence as ordinary families.
Thanks to Mitchell and Cameron, the show received many GLAAD Media Awards for its realistic representation of LGBTQI couple. It took part in the debate on same sex marriage and adoption. In 2013, to push a petition to attract interest about same sex marriage in California, the show’s authors were asked to plan Mitchell and Cameron’s wedding. After the approval of same sex marriage, they wrote a big part of the season revolving around their wedding day. An episode shows the day of the approval itself, too.
Many recent shows tried to overcome stereotypes about homosexual couples: EastSiders portrays young men struggling to find their balance and a place in the world; while Ian and Micky relationship in Shameless is one of the most troubled, though beloved, ever seen. And Transparent faces the coming out of a father and the complications it involves. Mitchell and Cameron are slightly different yet: they show how the life of a mature gay couple is.
Across the time, many films and shows handled with tricky themes avoiding stereotypes, and many still do. Modern Family tried to erase cliches through comedy, but after all it couldn’t but stress them, creating caricatures. Maybe the show dealt with social themes when they were no more so urgent; but it did its best to do it with lightness, to give sense of true-to-life and filling the gap left by the past stories. Having as protagonists different kinds of family and showing that they all have the same problems and dynamics, the show illustrates how the concept of family evolved through time. That the old, conservative thought has to step back in favor of an open-minded one. Modern Family proves that when a family grows up, the love which keeps it together grows up with it.