I've been trying to figure out why it works so well for me and have boiled it down to these things:
- Very smart, tight plotting and pacing. Yes, it's just a half hour (22 min) comedy, but there's always an overall "theme" for an episode that's a real, relatable "truth" about families, and there are always several different story lines running through, weaving in and out, constantly holding my attention. Right now, I'm watching a re-run of the episode where Manny is in the fencing competition, and I thought there were 3 main story lines: Manny's (with his parents questioning how much do you push your kids to win), Mitchell's sibling jealousy of Manny and Clair, and Phil trying to figure out what Luke might be excellent at. Probably those are the main storylines... but in thinking about this blog post, I tried to list all the little threads I saw start up in the first minute, that I knew were going to pay off (because I've seen the episode about five times). I decided to stop trying to list them, when I hit about nine and wasn't finished. Yes, nine little threads all started within the first minute. Masterful.
- Pretty much every episode makes me LOL several times, and a few episodes have made me cry a little. To me it's a sign of a great show if it can be both funny and touching.
- Subtlety. This isn't a laugh track comedy. It doesn't have pratfalls. It's doesn't follow the typical sitcom "and here comes the laugh" timing. It's more like Arrested Development in that way, with the funniest lines dropped, so you have to pay attention or watch the episodes more than once to be sure you caught them all. The Office and 30 Rock are like that, too, but to me those shows are more heavy handed. Funny, but more heavy handed.
- Great acting. Seriously. I think everyone on this show is awesome. And the chemistry between them all is dead on. I truly believe that Mitchell and Claire are brother and sister. All the couples feel like real couples and Claire and Phil's kids seem like siblings, too.
- Related to both the above points... So many things going on at once. The dialogue interweaves between the various storylines and the actors talk over each other (like people do in real life) and are always doing something in the background, so everything is so richly layered.
- This made me realize something else. It's not filmed in front of a live audience. So, they a) have time to get it right and b) the actors don't need to stop for applause or laughter. I really think this affects the pacing and timing. Also, because it's not all shot on a studio set, it feels slightly more like a drama... and seems more real.
- Real to life characters. My one exception: The first couple of shows I thought the Phil character was slightly over the top... Too much like Michael on The Office. But a few sweet things have happened to make him less of a buffoon, or at least a more likable buffoon and less of a cartoon than Michael is on The Office. And the fact that Phil cares so, so much about being a good dad is really touching. The rest of the characters all feel like people I know, or could know. They seem real.
- Snappy dialogue. I could use an example from just about any episode, actually several places within anyone episode, but this one, from the beginning of the episode I'm watching now, is as good example as any, and although there's a clear punch line, the way the entire sequence is delivered so quickly, you can almost miss the punch line. Especially since it's one you have to think about for a second, and they don't give you that second... Which is why I find I can watch these shows over and over...
Cameron (gay partner of Mitchell) is filming Manny (Mitchell's ten-year-old stepbrother) during a fencing competition.
Mitchell (rolling his eyes and clearly mortified that his boyfriend is going all cinematographer on them: Would it be easier if we suspended you from a crane?
[Cut to one of the talking to the camera segments a la The Office]
Cameron: (very proud) Any monkey can shoot a home movie. I pride myself in shooting home films.
Mitchell: (trying to be sensitive, a good boyfriend offering advice) Cam, it's just that sometimes you get carried away.
Cameron: No I don't.
Mitchell: Your nephew's first birthday party
Cameron: That's not fair
Mitchell: You brought a wind machine
Cameron: To be fair, my vision was--
Mitchell: (enunciating more carefully) You brought a wind machine
Cameron: (looking uncomfortable) Who puts wheels on cribs?
And then it quickly cuts to something else. The wheels on cribs line is totally dropped, and we're left to imagine what might have happened.... but so funny. (At least to me.)
A few minutes later, Mitchell is talking about how he and his older sister Claire used to be a figure skating duo when they were kids.
Mitchell: We were called Fire and Ice. I was Fire because of the red hair, and Claire was Nice (tiny pause and then adding quickly) because it was ironic and she wasn't.
That line says everything you need to know about the still existing sibling rivalry between Mitchell and Claire even now they are in their forties. The series is LOADED with show don't tell moments like that.
Another one from this same episode (actually, all these three examples are from first two minutes)
Alex (about 13, a middle sister and technically step-niece of Manny): Did you know that fencing goes back to the twelfth century?
Haley (her older sister, texting beside her on the bench instead of watching): Do you know what's even nerdier than fencing? Knowing when it began.
Luke: (little brother and sitting on other side of Alex): I don't think you're a nerd, Alex.
Alex: Shut up, dork.
Masterful show don't tell. A tiny segment, but shows so much about these 3 kids and their relationship. And it's all so typical of siblings. It's something anyone who has siblings can relate to.
Anyone else watching?
If you do watch, what's you favorite moment? For me, it's between a) the lion king moment in the first episode (okay, just about any moment in that first episode. When Phil shoots Haley's boyfriend, made me spit take), b) Mitchell cheating at blocks, or c) when everyone ends up in the pool (that's an episode that made me tear up a little).
I have so many more favorite moments.... In fact, I just hit play and Alex is getting Haley to "statically defracticate" her phone battery by rubbing it on her hair. So freaking funny.