Who here likes macaroni and cheese? Show of hands. One, two, three…twenty-five…one-hundred-eighty-seven…you in back, I see you… Okay, everyone. We all like macaroni and cheese. There’s nothing particularly bold or original with mac and cheese, it’s just starch tubes in orange goop. And yet I can polish off an entire pot of it in a single sitting, often with little to no shame. Point is, mac and cheese may not be spicy or nutritious, but damn is it good.
Modern Family is televised macaroni and cheese.
Debuting in the fall of ’09 with one of the best pilots in recent memory, Modern Family didn’t do a whole lot that was particularly new or adventurous as it chronicled the adventures of the Dunphy/Pritchett clan. (I’ll get to Cam and Mitchell in a moment, so calm down.) Almost everything was straight out of the sitcom trope bin: the well-meaning but bumbling dad, the sarcastic level-headed wife, the grouchy old guy, the bodacious trophy wife, the precocious kids. The faux documentary style, complete with characters addressing the camera, may seem new to some viewers but it’s really been around since the British (and better) version of The Office which debuted nearly a decade ago. But rather than work to its detriment, the familiarity made the show an immediate hit. Everyone could identify with the sweetly deluded Phil as he truly believed his kids thought he was cool, or Claire and Mitchell still working through sibling rivalry well into adulthood, or Jay being exasperated by Manny, the old-man-stuck-in-a-ten-year-old’s-body that is his Colombian stepson. But unlike most of ABC’s previous comedies Modern Family was actually, well, funny. And in the case of certain instant classic episodes, such as “The Incident” (Jay’s first wife, portrayed by Shelly Long, drops by with a big bucket of crazy) or “Fizbo” (Luke has what is simultaneously the best and worst birthday party ever), the show achieved pee-in-your pants hilarity. According to Jim this wasn’t.
Okay, now we’ll talk about Cameron and Mitchell. The one new element Modern Family did do was present gay characters who were not alternative lifestyle poster children like the mopers in Queer Nation or swishy minstrel caricatures like Jack in Will and Grace (a show I loathe for so, so many reasons). Cameron and Mitchell are written as just another couple who pick at each other’s foibles. The only difference between them and Phil and Claire is that Mrs. Dunphy looks better in Victoria’s Secret. Or so it’s safe to assume. Yeah, Cam and Mitchell are a little fussy about…everything… and have the usual encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to clothes, décor, and celebrity gossip that all TV gays are required to possess. It’s like how all Asians are required to be martial arts experts (I’m looking at you, Hawaii Five-O). But Eric Stonestreet’s Emmy-winning work as Cam brings a sunny believability to what could have been a cliché. “Fizbo,” the clown he plays in the above-mentioned episode, was a character Stonestreet brought to the producers and they made it part of Cam’s background, along with his surprising background in college football that gives him and Jay something to bond over. It’s worth noting that Stonestreet’s Emmy competition included Ty Burrell for his impeccable work as enthusiastic dimwit Phil and veteran character actor Ed O’Neill for his sublime turn as cranky patriarch Jay.
We’ve had two episodes this season, the first (“The Old Wagon”) being much stronger. Selling the old family wagon makes Claire aware of how time is passing by, and so Phil turns the vehicle into a time machine…by placing the words “time machine” on the door. As expected, the last picnic in the old car almost gets them all killed in a smartly-timed series of slapstick events culminating in the car rolling off a cliff just after the family bails. Meanwhile, Cameron fears for his own life as Mitchell attempts to build a princess castle for their adopted daughter Lily. Mitchell and power tools…not good for people, or walls, or flowers. It’s another thing for Cameron and Jay to bond over at lunch, even if Cam has to scold Jay for forgetting the garnish. (“We’re men, not cavemen.”) Manny is torn between a cute but controlling girl he’s studying with and Gloria, his proud and protective mother. It’s the weakest of the three segments, but it does teach us the mindblowing powers of salt in chocolate milk. The second ep (“The Kiss”) revolves around fears of showing affection. While it’s clever, not to mention laudable, for the producers to use Alex’s first kiss as a way to prompt Cam and Mitchell to finally show some on-camera love, too much of the episode depends on squealy performances from Ariel Winter as Alex and Sarah Hyland as older sister Haley. It’s not that the young actresses are bad – they’ve often been good in other eps – but their friction can grate if not handled and timed correctly. By the way, those name combinations – Cameron/Mitchell, Alex/Haley – are not an accident.
No, Modern Family is not the most daring thing on TV. That would be Mad Men. Nor is it the funniest sitcom on the air. That would be Community. But it is a warm and unusually hysterical paean to being human with the humans to whom we’re related. It’s comfort food with an extra slice of Velveeta, and I can think of no higher compliment. Can you tell I haven’t had lunch?
Next time on TV Chile, The Amazing Race. Eat up!