Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Modern Family

My single favorite new TV show this season is Modern Family. (Well Glee, too. And Vampire Diaries, but that's more of a guilty pleasure. I have zero guilt about Modern Family. And really it is my single, break-out new fav.) I can watch each episode multiple times and still laugh out loud, and also tear up in about half of them.

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.

Okay, I'll stop now. Love this show.

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.


Bev Katz Rosenbaum said...

Gah--I only saw the first episode! Loved it, but never got around to watching more. Really must make time (especially since I have a fencer in the family!). Great post!

Alli Sinclair said...

Oh, Maureen. Once again you've introduced me to a show I know I am going to love. I'm not sure whether to thank you or curse you for giving me less time to write. ;-) But hey, if the writing in the show is that good, then I am "studying", right?

Sounds like a great show!

Stephanie Doyle said...

Favorite moments:

Cam (Mitchell's boyfriend) "I collect antique fountain pens, I'm adept at Japaneese flower arranging.... and I was a starting offensive tackle for the fighting Illinois... Surprise!"

What I LOVED about this moment was how it took the gay sterotype and just flipped it on it's head.

Great stuff. Amazing show. I can watch it over and over again.

Another moment: Phil with a kidney stone trying not to alarm his children.

"I'm going to be okay. I'm fine... oh God it's Cancer."

"See look I'm standing I'm fine... oh no there is an alien inside of me. I'm shutting down. All systems down."

Maureen McGowan said...

Bev and Alli, you'll love it. And it's short. Not that big a commitment.

Steph, you made me giggle remembering those moments. Oh, I love that show...

You reminded me of another reason I loved that football show (where they all ended up in the pool). Cam and the Jay are watching football and bonding (nice in itself) and Mitchell is trying so hard to join. Jay says "get out of here" to some comment Mitchell says and Mitchell takes his dad literally and goes off in a huff. Then later when he's called out and feels stupid, he tries to pretend he was "getting up for a beer" but is holding a glass of wine. Jay looks at him and says, "Nice beer."

I love the sarcasm in that family..

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen - I think that's my second fav. moment.

Also when Phil says... "I hate to have my two girls fighting."

"How exactly is Gloria your girl."

Eileen said...

I loved the reliving of Mitchell telling everyone about adopting Lily and they're all saying the absolutely wrong thing and then Cam comes out doing the Lion King thing right after they complain about how dramatic he is. BTW, I'm terrible with names and hope I got that all right.

Thanks for reminding me! It's on tonight, isn't it?

Stephanie Doyle said...

That was the pilot Eileen... and probably one of the best shows ever.

And since I'm stuck at home in the snow... my favorite lines from that show...

"Luke, you shot your sister with the bee-bee gun. We told you what would happen if you did that."

"No, no please don't, Dad."

"I'm sorry but we have to stick by what we said. We're going to have to shoot you."

And then the family tries to schedule it on their family board. After soccor practice, before Karate... shoot Luke.

Can you all tell I'm a fan? In my defense - ABC has been re-running them constantly. My dvr keeps picking them up - so on any given day I'll watch an ep.

I'll stop now.

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, Stephanie, we are kindred spirits with this one. I keep watching them over and over, too... So freaking funny. I'll die if that show's canceled.

The pilot, I think was the most brilliant 30 minutes of TV ever. I still have it saved on my DVR from September. Priceless moment after priceless moment.

"If Haley never wakes up half-naked on a beach in Florida, I'll have done my job."
Phil adds, "Our job."
Clair nods, "I'll have done our job."

Again. 10 second exchange and we know so much about this couple.

Anonymous said...

I love the show... from the first episode to the one just aired... Phil's terror of clowns, the lion king moment, so many great, funny moments that they almost treat as throw away when any other show would spend minutes on each one.

Brilliant writing and acting.. and it's been renewed for another season...

it's the best comedy since Arrested Development.

Eileen said...

The only one I saw that I didn't like is when Cam and Mitchell's old friend comes to visit and is jealous of the baby. Then again, I didn't watch the whole thing.

OTOH, I think that one had the teenage daughter trying to sneak out and the grandfather foiling her over and over because he's already seen every trick in the book.

Maureen McGowan said...

Eileen, the part of that episode that was disappointing to me was Edward Norton. He just wasn't good.

But I kind of found the baby jealousy thing funny. And loved the grandfather trying to have a night with his grandkids... and the boyfriend wanting to stay there after he finally gives Haley permission to leave. And I liked the "Claire gives horrible presents" thing, too. That's one of the episodes that made me love Phil a little. Made me realize their relationship wasn't as uneven as it sometimes seems.

Allie said...

I love Modern Family! And I love that you've taken apart why it's good and studied it - I do that too (and drive my husband a little nuts).

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Maureen, thanks for the Facebook lead -- I'm amazed at discovering I never even HEARD of what sounds like the greatest show since West Wing.

Laurie, who's gotta check it out...thanks!

Marilyn Brant said...

Oh, two of my best friends here at home have been hounding me to watch this show. They keep telling me I'm going to love it and they can't believe I haven't seen it yet. Clearly, I MUST watch it. And SOON. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for it, Maureen ;).

mizwrite said...

Great assessment of the show, Maureen! You made a lot of interesting points I hadn't thought of as to why this show is so BRILLIANT. (Yes, I'm a fan, too!) The timing thing (and not waiting for the laugh track) is really true.

My favorite parts are when Phil tries to talk like the kids and botches every line.

And I love little Cassonova Manny ... truly unique "kid character."

LGBT Family​ said...

Modern Family is a really good show to review! I suggest you watch the whole series up to this point, because I think there's a lot to work with/ talk about. The adoption theme is throughout and is really interesting, even if they don't always do things the "right" way. They can normally find the humor in it all.

Modern Family

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