It says a lot about a sitcom in its prime when even a lesser season is miles above what similar shows are achieving with their contrived jokes and series premises that were thin right from the start. Modern Family’s fourth season might not be the series at its best, but each episode still delivers strong laughs and the elements that make the show great continue to bear the weight of the rest of the show. Presently, Modern Family really has no peers when it comes to the contemporary sitcom, as the rest are either bland (The Middle), stale (How I Met Your Mother), neutered (Community), dead (Happy Endings), or an (excellent but) acquired taste (Parks and Recreation). Modern Family remains one of the few shows where you can turn on a random episode and pick up the gist of the familial relationships while still getting 90% of the jokes thanks to sharp writing and fantastic performances. Usually a show this broad sacrifices comedy for that universal appeal, but Modern Family attains the best of both worlds.
Despite being a sitcom, where overarching storylines are usually eschewed in favor of episodic simplicity so viewers won’t get lost if they miss a week, Modern Family has always worked in some longer term plot lines relevant to the ongoing evolution of a family unit. The two pertinent ones left hanging from the third season related to Gloria’s (Sofia Vergara) discovery that she’s pregnant just as Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) have their attempt at a second adoption fall through. While the former story evolves with Sofia’s struggle to reconcile her changing body with her perception of her body image and the birth of the child and how that affects Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria’s lives, the failed adoption plot line peters out as Cam and Mitch move on and their daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) becomes increasingly ornery and stubborn in as many amusing ways as the writers could dream up. Meanwile, Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) chant the “Only five more years” mantra as they wait for their youngest daughter Alex (Ariel Winter) and their son Luke (Nolan Gould) to graduate high school, only to have their hope for freedom dashed on the rocks as their oldest daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) gets expelled from college and returns home to live with them.
Call it careful planning or contract-informed storytelling, but Haley’s dropping out of college saves the series from having to deal with featuring Haley solely as a distant Skype presence on a laptop screen. At least it makes sense for the character considering her obsession with popularity and disdain for most educational obligations. What it really does, though, is keep the Dunphy household as the best of the show’s three family dynamics. The bickering of the three Dunphy kids still supplies a steady stream of laughs, but the best jokes come from the goldmine that is Julie Bowen’s look of skepticism and Ty Burrell’s boundless enthusiasm and optimism towards maintaining his “cool dad” image. When the two of them collide, Modern Family has some of its best moments. That they’re punctuated with brief moments of brilliance like the “I can’t believe you’re that stupid” glares from Ariel Winter, the simultaneously dumb but hilarious comments of Sarah Hyland, or the increasingly manipulative actions and unexpectedly loaded comments from Nolan Gould, just make the Dunphy household that much better.
The addition of a new baby helps to freshen up the stories happening in Jay and Gloria’s home, but it can’t completely offset the staleness of the one-note joke that is their marital premise (older man marries younger bombshell wife whose command of English and shrill voice result in lots of ESL punchlines). It was a joke that was wearing thin by the second and third seasons, but here it feels altogether worn out. It still works every now and then, but mostly it’s just not bearing the same comedic fruit it once did. In the fourth season, Jay and Gloria are at their best when they’re paired off with members of their extended family, and the writers seem to catch onto this midway through the season.
That places Cam and Mitchell’s household as the show’s second-best source of humor, and for the most part it’s as strong as ever. Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson play well off one another, and Aubrey Anderson-Emmons only gets better the older she gets, but the writing for this trio just isn’t as original or witty as it used to be. Stories tend to fall back on the overused formula of Mitch’s cynicism hurting Cam’s feelings and the two of them reconciling by the episode’s end. It gets a bit predictable, but luckily the circumstances of the formula are still funny enough (like having to convince Lily the tooth fairy gave her too much money by accident) that it all works, just not as well as it used to.
One thing that becomes noticeable is that very few storylines ever cross Ty Burrell with Eric Stonestreet. We get stories that involve Phil with just about everyone else, but very little has been developed in terms of character dynamics between Phil and Cam. Claire and Mitch cross over with one another’s significant others constantly, but never Phil and Cam. It’s the one relationship Modern Family has yet to really develop in any meaningful way.
Modern Family is still the funniest sitcom on network television, but its fourth season wasn’t a highlight or the series. It’s still worth watching all the way through and revisiting though. After all, a series that started as incredibly funny and gets a little bit worse is still really funny, and that’s more than can be said for Two and a Half Men or Mike & Molly.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The set is padded with plenty of extras including an excellent 10-minute long blooper reel, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, a clip show on the theme of “A Modern Family Guide to Parenting”, a brief run-through of a day on set with Eric Stonestreet (which is always strange considering he’s very little like his character), and featurettes on the show’s writers and the addition of Jay and Gloria’s child.
"Modern Family: The Complete Fourth Season" is on sale September 24, 2013 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Jason Winer, Michael Spiller. Written by Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd. Starring Ariel Winter, Aubrey Anderson Emmons, Ed ONeill, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell.