"Modern Family" Retains the Laughs but Fails to Grow Review

The wide variety of characters present in shows like Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Happy Endings, Cougar Town, Community, and Modern Family gives writers numerous personalities to work with and let them realize just about any crazy scenario they can dream up. Of those shows, Modern Family easily has the most diverse collection of characters, and it affords each episode a kind of flexibility that lets it shift on a dime between notes of comedy, sentimentality and sincerity all within the same episode. The downside of Modern Family is that as a sitcom, the character growth is minimal at best, which means Julie Bowen will always play her part uptight, Ty Burrell will always be her comic foil, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet will always be Yin and Yang, and Ed O’Neill will be surly and Sofia Vergara misunderstood (both linguistically and idiomatically). Consequently, the third season presents a steady stream of laughs, but nothing really changes, for better or for worse.

Played out between the three households of the Pritchett family, each couple and their offspring has a unique set of troubles. Jay (O’Neill), Gloria (Vergara) and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) continue their typical back and forth about morality, Jay’s affection for the family dog, criticism, and failed vacations. In the home of Phil (Burrell) and Claire (Bowen), a number of other happenings include Claire’s run for public office, their oldest daughter Haley’s (Sarah Hyland) break up with her boyfriend and panic over whether or not she’ll get into college, the death of Luke’s old friend and mentor Walt’s (Philip Baker Hall), and Alex (Ariel Winter) gets her first kiss while on vacation at a dude ranch. Meanwhile, Cameron (Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Ferguson) deal with their fathers’ conflicting definitions of their relationship, Lilly’s dropping of the F bomb, and their struggle to adopt a second child.

Where Modern Family has always excelled is in its mix of the sweet, the bitter, and the comical. Those candid sit-down moments with one character winking at the camera in a confessional can go any number of directions. Ed O’Neill in particular excels at those moments when it comes to the heartfelt honesty, and it gives the show a kind of weight that many sitcoms wouldn’t dare touch for fear that it causes a hiccup in the laughter. By contrast, Modern Family embraces those lulls in the yuks and uses them to make us care about the characters just a little bit more than normal, thus making the laughs all the sweeter, and those rare moments of emotional despair (Cameron and Mitchell probably have the biggest one this season) all the more impactful.

Season three offers plenty of laughs for the casual sitcom consumer, but the episodes are uneven at best thanks in large part to the characters being so narrowly defined at this point as to exactly what kind of jokes they’re given. Burrell’s take on the “cool dad” has always been the most consistently funny voice in the show, and as a consequence the writers have turned Bowen’s character into his counterweight, with most of her comedic moments coming at her expense rather than at her whim. She’s essentially made to take the pratfall as the overly serious character the audience has been trained to resent as the damper on Phil’s flights of fancy and it’s a bit unfair. We’ve had glimpses where Claire got to be a little off the wall and it was as enjoyable as any time Manny and Luke are forced to spend time with one another (some great comedy comes from those scenes), but more commonly she’s forced to play the killjoy, bad cop. It’s part of her character, but it’s also a waste.

An odd quirk that’s developed in the show’s writing is how Gloria has ceased to just be a woman behind a language barrier and is sometimes treated like a child. One episode has her experiencing jealousy, supposedly for the first time. Maybe the writers thought it funny and based it off her being beautiful and thus she never had an occasion to be jealous before that, but really it’s just a poor exploitation of the language barrier that at other times has netted the show pure comedy gold. Gloria’s character only works if she’s as smart as everyone else but unable to express it properly, by making her into an idiot or bimbo it ceases to be funny and just becomes embarrassing.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

A number of featurettes offer audiences a glimpse of what it’s like to be on the set of an episode for a day with Ty Burrell, a tour of the location used for the season’s premiere episode at the dude ranch, a behind-the-scenes look with the younger cast members and the filming of the Disneyland episode, and the horrors of Haley learning to drive. Additionally the set has extended and deleted scenes and a great gag reel.

"Modern Family: The Complete Third Season" is on sale September 18, 2012 and is not rated. Comedy. Directed by Jason Winer, Michael Spiller. Written by Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd. Starring Ariel Winter, Ed ONeill, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell.

Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.


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