Alexandra Lange | Essays

Playing House

Modern Family
is really funny. Yes, I like something and it is on TV! The set-up seems overly complex, with an unseen documentary crew, three families that are somehow related and lots of pre-teen kids, but in fact all of that post-modern framing makes it brisk and funny. Scenes don’t get drawn out, because they can always cut to a character’s recap of the outcome and the visual changes more often than in a typical sitcome because instead of one living room sofa, there are three.

In fact, those three living rooms, and those three houses, are used as a structuring device, cluing us in both to the character of each respective family and to the fact that we are switching POV. I would like to think that the houses, each more enormous than the last (and this for people who don’t seem to work, at least not yet) are meant as subtle satire. Yes, Virginia, everyone on TV does live in a McMansion. The sheer size of the sets astonishes and offers the female audience the kind of shelter porn that Nancy Meyers movies are always good for (see Lisa Schwartzbaum’s EW review of It’s Complicated).

I have already read UrbanBaby love for the beige transitional living room of the most conventional of the three houses, inhabited by the most conventional of the three families: Claire, Phil and their three kids. What makes the show funny is that Claire and Phil, the good-looking heterosexual married couple, are the weirdos of the bunch. She is played by Julie Bowen, so pretty, so unthreatening in Ed, etc. Here she spoofs her natural niceness by being socially awkward, bad at giving gifts, once an ugly duckling. It is the explanation for why she would have married the even awkwarder (but unaware) Phil. He clearly loved the duckling, not the swan. They are actually characters, not cardboard cut-outs of what TV people think is normal.

Meanwhile, Claire’s father Jay (Ed O’Neill, a.k.a. Al Bundy) is married to a Colombian hottie with an awkward son of her own, Manny. They live in a house he can only have bought after his first wife’s passing: it is modern in the extreme, as glimpsed in the still above and every time they show its angular front door it screams “mid-life crisis.”

The nicest house of the bunch and the one we have spent the least time at so far is the home of Mitchell, Claire’s brother, Jay’s son, who is married to Cameron (a man). It is Spanish-style, hung about with vines and actually looks like it might have been built before 2005. They adopted a little-seen baby Lily. I hope next season they can spring for some baby actors, since the Lily is mostly played by a Snugride. Cameron is actually the most popular member of the family, funny and wise and has so far been given the most reveals: he was a defensive lineman; he is a clown; he was kicked out of the Greensleevers. To me, at least, the jokes seem more knowing and less stereotypical than most gay humor on TV. But they have given Mitchell and Cam the best taste.

Posted in: Media

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