In the past few years, the popularity of the typified sitcom – recorded laugh track and all – has dropped significantly. In its place, it seems the highest rated shows on television follow that of the mock documentary format, or the “mockumentary.” One refreshing new show that uses this style is the 2009 premiere to ABC primetime, Modern Family.
The show, aired on Wednesday nights at 9, is nearing completion of its first season, and was long ago picked up for its second by network executives. It is written by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, and follows the lives of three interrelated families, each composed of particular familial dynamics that have become more common in the 21st century. As of now, Modern Family is one of the highest rated new shows on television, but despite all this critical acclaim, I don't really know anyone who is watching it (with the exception of myself and my roommates). And I don't understand why, because it is - in all probability - the most refreshing comedy on television this year.
The series revolves around the lives of two generations of family: Jay Pritchett (as played by Ed O’Neil, who is commonly known as Married … With Children’s Al Bundy), his young Columbian wife Gloria, and her son Manny from a previous marriage. The other families are composed of Jay’s two grown children from his prior marriage: Marshall and his partner Cameron, who adopt a Vietnamese baby in the pilot episode, and Claire and her husband Phil Dunphy, as well as their three children. In a sense, the show strives to represent the different ways that the 21st century family is composed, thus retrieving its name.
This style of film and television making is not new; it has been extant in society since the 60’s, but only recently has it settled so broadly within American pop culture. Probably its most notable inundation into television came with the 2005 premiere of the US version of The Office, a mockumentary that chronicles the lives of sales and accounting personnel at their local paper company. Whether it was attributed to skilled acting, clever writers, or the show's format implying that these people were “real,” a lot of people got attached to the show really fast. Its popularity mounted, and with producers’ newfound realization that this format of television was going to catch, new slews of similarly styled shows were picked up.
The longstanding appeal of a mockumentary isn’t simply to parody “real” life or to imply that people necessarily adjust their personalities when they know they are being filmed. Although the initial aim of a mock documentary was in fact to satire a particular lifestyle, habit or nuance (think Drop Dead Gorgeous or Best In Show for some more recent films in that category), the younger bunch of mockumentaries aim to suggest comedic value in real life itself. What has provided shows like Modern Family permanence in consumer culture is that with few elements of absurdity, the content is both funny and relatable. The content also strikes a sentimental chord in its viewers, thanks to its everyday relativism and the realistic portrayal of family relationships.
Statistically speaking, divorce rates have spiked. There is certainly a new sense of cynicism that surrounds the entire production of marriage, settling down, and bearing children. It is very likely that you yourself knows someone who is adamant in insisting they will never get married, or they don’t want to have children, or they just don’t see it happening for them. What is so radically appealing about Modern Family is that it illustrates lives that are not radical at all. What you are watching are the regular banalities of family life, equipped with a witty sense of humor.
When my friends and I first became avid fans of The Office, I remember we often remarked that in some bizarre fashion, the show amplified the appeal of the dreaded 9-5 office gig. That is the sort of appeal that Modern Family offers in the sense of traditional family life.
There is a stale, repeatable aspect to “reality” television that has clearly indicated to us that we cannot ask “real” people to entertain us with their “real” lives. To succeed in the parameters of reality TV, “real” people turn themselves into characters. They become hyperbolic and absurd. Its entertainment value is based in the absurdity of these “real” people's characters: their tendency to fight, their drunkenly outrageous antics. They are actually the antithesis of what is classified as “real” life! Perhaps it this absence of reality presented in the realms of “reality” TV that urged America's desire for television celebrating normalcy.
Modern Family's episodes run half an hour in length, and the beginning usually starts with the film crew asking each family member a question that will become the central theme of the show; “What are you most afraid of?” was the topic of a recent episode. If not that, there is at least a common thread that ties all three families and their activities in the episode together. Each character has staple trademarks and lines that they usually use at least once per episode, such as Phil Dunphy and the unmended stair that he always trips on in his home. Through the span of the episode, trivial conflicts emerge between the characters, like a longstanding grudge between siblings, or the discrepancy of age between Jay and Gloria. But these conflicts are always trivial. I do not envision a future with the show where anything particularly tragic or hard hitting will occur. For some viewers, this may diminish their interest, but we must remember that we are dealing in the realm of reality. Reality can be harsh or tragic or difficult, but usually it is simply trivial, and that is what invites such frustration into our lives… but also the potential for comedy.
Lloyd and Levitan seem to understand the structural faults of family life; one small disagreement often has a domino effect on everyone. Each character has a few trademark qualities: Phil Dunphy is sheepish but well intentioned, and it is his clumsy errors that often jumpstart the show. Claire Dunphy is exasperated but loving. Jay Pritchett is jaded, but trying really hard. Manny, Gloria’s son, is portrayed as an incredibly perceptive, almost frighteningly intelligent 8 year old. Cameron is full of flair and emotion, and his partner Marshall is more pragmatic and prone to agitation. The writers use these traits, which are pretty typical of the average human, to create humorous confrontations that don't cause the characters to lose the affection they have for each other.
Similar to its opening, each episode's conclusion is usually a voiceover of one character as the show runs a quick montage of the remaining Prichett-Dunphy clan, demonstrating how everything has worked out for them. It’s all fairly predictable, but the clear sentimentality is what has reserved the show its space on ABC primetime. The characters assure us that they love each other despite one another's flaws, and it is comforting to realize that you have thoroughly enjoyed and laughed through an entire show devoid of any vulgarity or ruthless, reckless interactions between characters. Modern Family is a breath of wholesome, fresh air in a world of television that often resorts to crude or offensive jokes. With the surge of mockumentaries like Modern Family we are able to ascertain that we can be funny too, just as we are.