What Modern Family Says About Modern Families

The medium is the message.

Written by New York Times | Published:January 30, 2011 11:14 pm

In his 1964 book Understanding Media,Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase,“The medium is the message.” Were he here nearly 50 years later,the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in a popular American sitcom,the medium has become the punch line.

Several weeks ago,the cast of the hit series Modern Family (telecast on Star World) was filming an episode. Cam,the portly,gay Mr. Dad,learned some bad news. His partner,Mitchell,had failed to mail out invitations to a fund-raiser in their home. “Get me Mitchell!” Cam shouted to his nephew,Luke.

But Luke doesn’t know Mitchell’s number. Cam grabs the phone and presses speed dial. Mitchell lets the call go to voice mail. Luke doesn’t know how to press redial. Cam snatches the receiver and gets twisted in his headset. Five back-and-forths in 10 seconds and still nobody has managed to communicate. Shakespeare used mistaken identities to flummox his lovers. Modern Family uses dropped Skype connections. In a rare concurrence,the darling of the critics is one of the highest rated comedies on American TV. This unusual success for a family comedy raises questions: what aspects of contemporary life has it tapped into? What does Modern Family say about modern families?

The creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (Cheers,Wings) conceived their show around a newfangled family tree: Jay Pritchett,the patriarch; his Colombian trophy wife,Gloria; and her son,Manny; Jay’s grown son,Mitchell; his partner,Cam; and their adopted Vietnamese daughter; Jay’s high-strung daughter,Claire; her goofball husband,Phil; and their three suburban children.

For starters,the characters in Modern Family are so immersed in technology that nearly every scene is refracted through a digital funhouse: an iPad screen,a cellphone camera,a YouTube video. Characters spend half their time glancing past one another rather than communicating directly.

The refraction of technology is part of a larger element: the bifurcation of how people act. First,characters in the middle of a scene will often glance at the camera that has the effect of making the viewer feel both a part of the family and an observer. Second,the characters offer confessional interviews directly to an unidentified camera person. As Lloyd said: “The interviews are a chance to have characters more honestly express things than they might openly do in a scene with someone. So,we get a laugh from the contrast between what they’re feeling and what they were willing to admit they were feeling in the scene.”

But the feature of the show that seems most contemporary is that it goes for the heart instead of the jugular. In nearly every 22-minute episode,any conflict gets resolved,and a tidy embrace ensues. Modern Family is built around the opposite idea: no problem is too big it can’t be swept under a hug.

The creators of Modern Family are tapping into a different,more self-regarding anxiety: less focused on how families interact with the outside world; more centered on how they function internally,the challenges of dealing with children,or unresolved stuff with your parents is as real as dealing with a big crazy event like a rape or a crisis of faith.” As Lloyd put it,“Viewers wish their family communicated more directly the way our guys do.” Therein lies the crux of the show. There are second marriages to immigrants,adolescent husbands who never grew up,gay dads. But the core values are the same. In its fundamentally conservative vision,Modern Family turns out to be not so modern after all.BRUCE FEILER

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