Having never been a fan of most US sitcoms (even the so-called classics like Cheers and Friends leave me cold), I approached Modern Family with low expectations, and I came away pleasantly surprised by the level of creativity and quotable lines crammed into its first episode. The plot was just a series of introductions and brief scenarios to lap up, but it did a textbook job of making you understand its numerous relationships, care about most of the characters, laugh at the majority of jokes, and ultimately made you eager to see the next episode. What more does a comedy pilot have to do?
To British eyes, this plays like an Americanized Outnumbered, although I'm not sure if the obvious similarities were intentional. Its mockumentary style has likely come from Ricky Gervais' popularization of the form in The Office, but its half-improvised nature has a lot in common with Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkins' BBC comedy. I also spotted influences from When Harry Met Sally (the interspersed interviews with paired-up characters), and Arrested Development (in that its eccentric vibe often takes things beyond the simple realism you expect from its documentary aesthetic.)
Like the US version of The Office, there doesn't seem to much logic to the fact its characters are being filmed by a camera crew (there's even a shot from a night-vision camera in a pantry that goes uncommented on), which is a particular bugbear of mine. Having characters acknowledge the camera only makes sense if the characters are aware they're being filmed for a reason -- something the US Office characters do repeatedly without mentioning the program they're theoretically the subjects of. Modern Family nearly falls into the same trap, but it feels like we're witnessing a genuine documentary (with talking heads that feel more realistic).
Modern Family focuses on three families on a sliding scale of orthodoxy. First there's the archetypal Dunphy family: hardworking mom Claire (Julie Bowen) who struggles to keep her brood in order, embarrassing dad Phil (Ty Burrell) who thinks he has a kinship with today's youth, teen daughters Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Alex (Ariel Winter), and troublesome tyke Luke (Nolan Goul). Next up there's the Delgado-Pritchett trio: sexagenarian patriarch Jay (Ed O'Neill), his glamourous and much younger Latino wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), and chubby stepson Manny (Rico Rodriguez II). And finally, there's the unconventional Pritchett/Tucker family: gay couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who have just returned home after adopting a Vietnamese baby called Lily.
Just in this first episode, there were more memorable moments than in a whole box-set of Friends: Phil dancing to High School Musical and trying to show street cred in front of his daughter's unimpressed boyfriend; Jay unable to get out of a folding seat at a soccer match when a younger man flirts with his wife, assuming he's her father; the kitsch mural of Cameron and Mitchell as angels above their adopted daughter's crib; a Lion King track heralding the arrival of baby Lily; a malfunctioning pellet gun; and many more.
The second episode wasn't as good because it wasn't as funny, but there were better storylines held together by a thematic thread of fatherhood. Phil bought his son a new bicycle, which he promptly lost while helping a sexy neighbour, and his efforts to buy a replacement bike resulted in comic complexities. Elsewhere, Jay spent a day trying to fix a ceiling fan with stepson Manny, who was overexcited about getting to see his real dad soon, making Jay feel inadequate and unappreciated. And gay parents Cameron and Mitchell took baby Lily to nursery, but the flamboyant Cameron's under orders not to embarrass them by acting too camp in front of the other heterosexual parents.
Overall, there was more than enough here to keep me watching for now, but it all rests on whether or not they can maintain the high gag quotient and ensure the characters have ample opportunities to grow. There's a risk things may begin to stagnate once the initial freshness wears off, but I'm cautiously optimistic that Modern Family has what it takes to succeed.
15 October 2009 (1.1) 22 October 2009 (1.2) Sky1, 8pm
written by: Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd (1.1) & Bill Wrubel (1.2) directed by: Jason Winer starring: Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy), Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphy), Sarah Hyland (Haley Dunphy), Ariel Winter (Alex Dunphry), Nolan Goul (Luke), Ed O'Neill (Jay Pritchett), Sofia Vergara (Gloria Delgado), Rico Rodriguez II (Manny Delgado), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell Pritchett), Eric Stonestreet (Cameron Tucker) & Reid Ewing (Dylan)