Modern Family is immediately recognizable as the best new sitcom of the fall in part because it’s not recognizable as any other sort of sitcom. It may have the faux-documentary framework of The Office; it may have faces familiar from other comedies (Ed O’Neill from Married…With Children, Julie Bowen from Ed), but Modern Family is unique in the way it juggles so many players so deftly and makes every member of the cast a vivid, complex character. Oh, and it’s really funny, too.
Bowen and Ty Burrell, as Claire and Phil, are at once the most common TV types — suburban parents with three kids — but their dynamic has arguably yielded the most laughs to date. That’s because Bowen knows how to play a subtly funny straight woman to Burrell’s peerless goofball: Phil is completely whipped by his wife, which doesn’t keep him from trying to convince us, in his chats to the camera, that he’s a cool ”dude” who’s ”down” with ”the kids.” He’s also horny for a neighbor (a cartoonishly bodacious divorcée) and literally contorts himself with mixed-message body language whenever he’s around both Claire and this temptress. Burrell is the season’s breakout comic actor…or at least now he’s getting that credit due to Modern Family’s strong ratings, since he was just as good on Back to You, the ruefully short-lived comedy from Family co-creator Steven Levitan.
As for the other two family units: Partners Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) struggle hilariously to fit into the mostly straight society that comes with adopting a child and entering the world of playgroups and kiddie parties. The actors take what could have been stereotypical gay comedy roles and invest them with layered anxieties that render them believable, if also absurdly nutty.
O’Neill may have the trickiest job here. A late-middle-ager remarried to a Latina bombshell (Sofia Vergara, playing Gloria as a sort of highly articulate Charo), his Jay wants to enjoy his overdue-midlife-crisis prize but has to put up with her mope of a son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). And do it without seeming like a mean old duffer. O’Neill and the writers pull it off by making Jay both deadpan sarcastic and a genuinely decent guy.
Modern Family works because it does something the network sitcom hasn’t managed in years: It offers a comic equation for almost every audience segment, while never blanding out the characters for mass consumption. Its gift to us is a postmodern modern family. A?