Monday, September 19, 2011

The Emmys Are for Idiots, Part IV: 'Modern Family' Is Trash

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) held its annual awards show last night. Last year, I looked at the Emmys' structural badness and historical oversights in Part I, then covered all the major nominees and nominations in Part II and Part III. Many of those shows were nominated again this year, so going into this year's slate in any detail will only run the risk of repeating myself too much.

Funnily enough, I do want to repeat myself and then add a few comments about Modern Family, but only after some stray thoughts about pleasant surprises and expected but still unfortunate disappointments this year.

A friend and I found ourselves chatting over the nominees last night, before the awards started, and both of us thought Melissa McCarthy (an overweight woman) and Peter Dinklage (a dwarf) were a lock to win. Neither of us thought them undeserving, far from it. Dinklage has been hilarious in Elf, 30 Rock and Death at a Funeral, and he was a compelling and powerful lead in The Station Agent. Although I haven't seen enough of him in Game of Thrones, what little I have caught appears to be some of his best work. McCarthy's received fewer plaudits over the years, but she provided an irreplaceable comedic and emotional cog in Gilmore Girls for the entire series run, something for which she was wrongly overlooked.

What struck us as funny was that we, independent of each other, both looked past these two actors' undeniable strengths and just assumed that they'd win just as much for their gimmick social value. The actual probity of ATAS voters is so dubious that even what should be a mortal lock on a talent level, in Dinklage's case, seems likelier only if you attach an unnecessary political rider to the vote. You can easily imagine an avatar of the perfect ATAS voter — doesn't watch much beyond network fare, three-camera sitcoms, cop procedurals and primetime soaps — thinking that Dinklage was a lot worse than someone else, somehow, then voting for him because, "Voting for a dwarf makes a statement about the ATAS." Or, in McCarthy's case, "We need to reaffirm positive self-images in heavy women, so let's go with her."

I've long been a strong supporter of Baseball Hall of Fame voters being required to submit ballots with their names on them, just because baseball statistics allow us to see just how objectively earth-shatteringly wrong they are. If you want to be wrong, you should have to own up to it in public. If you honestly think Jim Rice was a better overall player than Tim Raines or that Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven, you should face the torrents of hate mail you so richly deserve until you resign your ballot and skulk away like a shivering cur.

Likewise, the ATAS should require 500 words of rationale per category, just so morons aren't allowed the privilege of anonymity anymore. If you can't explain your vote sensibly, in 500 words, as to why a show is the Best Drama of all, people should put the leeches and the Nikki Finke's on you. Doing so might result in satisfactory explanations for why:
Jim Parsons wins anything, when his job as an actor is to play someone who neither understands nor cares about emotion, empathy, motive, etc. — all the stuff an actor reacts to and exhibits — thus almost guaranteeing that other contenders for the same nomination are doing far more work at far more risk of exposing their shortcomings;
Steve Carell never won an Emmy for the role of Michael Scott;
Mad Men can be the Best Drama for four years in a row, yet apparently no actor on the show is good enough to win a single award;
Friday Night Lights — a consistently excellent show over its five-year run — goes without nominations for writing or acting until its last two years, then wins for writing and Best Actor in its last year, without any significant increase in quality.
Aside from Dinklage and McCarthy, the only genuine highlight of the night was Margo Martindale winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role of Mags Bennett on Justified. Mags is an actress' dream: a manipulator, murderer, mother, mob boss, moonshiner, defender of civic spirit, public Iago; she is capable of reasoning with the law to keep it at bay and shaking with violent spilled-over rage. Even if Justified seems to occupy a foreign country at times — and already shows signs of FX-series disease, with principal characters apt to flip-flop motivations, passions and allegiances multiple times if things last more than another season or so — she absolutely nailed that character and brought it a creeping and powerful sense of danger.

As said, much of the rest of the show was expected. Scorsese was nominated and won for being Scorsese more than anything (subsequent episodes inevitably stray from or betray pilots, eventually making the creator's one-hour stab at tone dated even by the second season); Downton Abbey and Mildred Pierce dominated the "Stately British Shit" and "Old Period Shit" categories, and all the other comedy awards went to the comedic, creative and social menace that is Modern Family.

I wrote quite a bit about Modern Family last year, and there's no sense in either rephrasing it or trying to insert added observations in what is already a self-contained essay. So at the risk of seeing something old again, I placed what I wrote last year between the line breaks below:

I don't think I "get" the show, but that's probably because I'm a fan of comedy. What I get even less is reviewers' compulsion this year to fall all over themselves in praise of it as an original and hilarious piece of work. And it's neither. But what's interesting is that even its name tells you the former. It's a story you've seen a bunch of times before, but it's modernized. Take every convention of big-family sitcoms and add jokes about iPhones, May-December marriages that produce children, gluten-free meals, Bieber and OnStar, and there you go.

Ed O'Neill plays a sixtysomething patriarch married — with no credible explanation — to a smoking-hot Latina thirty years his junior. They have a fat dopey kid, from her previous marriage. From his previous marriage, O'Neill's character has a daughter (married to a complete putz, with whom she had a bitchy worldly older girl, a girl who's "still a girl," and a boy) and a son, who's gay and married to a fat gay man, with whom he adopted a child. O'Neill doesn't sufficiently respect his wife's culture, nor does he understand his fat, dopey sensitive step-son. He also doesn't understand why his daughter married a total goober, nor is he really fully comfortable with his son being gay, although he tries. A lot of this information is revealed in confessional moments one-on-one with the camera.

There you have it: O'Neill's a slightly nicer Archie Bunker, who married one of these hispanics who frightened him and sired one of the gays that confused him. His version of All in the Family gets filtered through the saccharine dynamic of having tons of kids everywhere that recalls the Brady Bunch, the doomed earlier Parenthood series or Eight Is Enough. Finally, when the producers are worried that you can't understand the complex layers of two or even three ideas per episode, they have the characters tell you exactly what they feel about exactly what is bothering them. So in that respect, it's The Office written by eighth graders, for eighth graders. Of course, I realize now I could just have said, "It's The Real World."

However, the Office comparison springs to mind in large part due to the character of the putz son-in-law. Actor Ty Burrell is saddled with two problems in the putz role. First is that the makeup department of the show seems determined to make him gray. Like, it looks like he has a terminal blood disorder. Second is that he's Michael Scott working from a home office. He's oblivious, emotionally needy, chronically unfunny, meddlesome and aching to sound or look hip. Replace the cast of The Office with children supposedly sired by Michael Scott, and the shows would be identical in this respect. It's too bad, because Burrell seems game and talented, but he's being asked to replicate a role already being filled on another hit show that's still currently running.

There's really not much to be said about the character of the bearded ginger gay son [Mitchell], played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, except that I hope the gay community is glad they finally have their own Timothy Busfield. The character offers a bold step forward by finally having the guts to portray a gay man as brittle, fussy, obsessive-compulsive, judgmental and completely ignorant of anything about sports. But don't think it's a stereotype, because he's married to a fussy, panicky flaming queen with ridiculous hair, who really breaks the stereotypical mold by having another vector for gay jokes also be a vector for fat jokes, hair jokes and clothing jokes. I'm looking forward to the day that we can all finally acknowledge that some gay men are manly, physical, familiar with sports and oozing with confidence while preferring to have sex with men. And that day is in 2001, when Six Feet Under premiered and made all this mincing-prancing silk-robed spastic "fag" characterization come off like a cheap comedy crutch of homosexual minstrelsy.

Modern Family is a triumph of mediocrity, glossed with handheld camera work, no laugh track and the confessional format that have all become hip in recent years. The gay people are caricatures, and the hispanic woman shrieks, "Ay, Papi! Madre di Dios!" and the kids all speak like adults. There might have been a wacky neighbor in the early mix, but the producers just made him part of the family instead. Somebody dressed up a standard three-camera laugh-track sitcom with a bunch of neat devices that make it seem more sophisticated than it is, for about five minutes, until you realize that you're watching every conventional family sitcom for the last 20 years. Gawker almost nailed it when they said, "Modern Family is Arrested Development for the Hard-of-Thinking," but it really seems much more like a merging of Will & Grace and The White Cosby Show for people who desperately want to seem sophisticated without going to all the extra work of getting jokes.

When this series came roaring back this year on the strength of its Emmy wins, it immediately set to work crafting the same treacly plots and soft-stereotyping in a weightless Brady Bunch universe. Every family gathering is celebrated with a full quorum of relatives, and everyone races each other in different cars to the party, learning valuable lessons along the way and almost getting in wacky car accidents. And just in case you're too busy staring slackjawed at shiny nickels you accidentally dropped on your coffee table to understand or notice those lessons, a confessional scene will explicitly lay out each lesson and conclusion for you without any risk of ambiguity or human complexity.

The Aspergian character Abed on NBC's Community laid out the principles of these confessionals in a "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," a mockumentary episode that show ran this year:
It's easier to tell a complex story when you can just cut to people explaining things to the camera.... After a while it can become cramped, chaotic and stinky.... You can always wrap it up with a series of random shots, when cut together under a generic voiceover, to suggest a profound thematic connection. I'm not knocking it. It works.
It would be surprising if these comments weren't a shot at Modern Family, which uses all of the shortcuts of mockumentary without taking any of the risks it permits to expand its universe or introduce greater complexity. Its reliance on mockumentary presents an entirely explanatory format: it exists to tell you how the cameras saw what they saw and, when in doubt, leadenly emphasize that you just heard what you needed to hear.

Community, of course, only did one such episode, mastering it in 22 minutes, before returning to its more challenging conventional narrative format that has already created far more indelible characters in the same amount of time. And while Community is certainly a gimmicky show, it changes its gimmicks on virtually a per-episode basis, relying instead on the wit and attention of the audience to understand densely layered allusions in a conventional but less patronizing narrative structure. Of course, it has won only a Creative Arts Emmy and been nominated for zero others.

But Modern Family has worse problems, alluded to above. It wants to seem progressive for having interracial and gay marriages and adoption, but both of these plot elements are usually played for negative, non-inclusive, exotic and "othering" laughs. Ed O'Neill's patriarch Jay winces at the actions of his gay son and shows muted contempt for his Columbian wife Gloria's devout Catholicism, as well as zero interest in her native cooking. When he proposes that they travel to her old home in Columbia, she assumes that it will only confirm his stereotypical vision of it as provincial, impoverished and stupid.

At the same time, Gloria's son Manny serves a dual function of being fat, foreign and artistically nerdy. He's occasionally successful with the ladies, living out a kind of Latin lover stereotype that his flabby body and pointy-headed passions bely. The poor bastard is literally The Other: not from here, not built like "normal" people, not interested in what "normal" people are interested in, prone to talking funny. Point at him and pick a reason to laugh.

The gay characters fare little better. The Otho-from-Beetlejuice-haired Cameron exists as a seasons-long laugh line about how funny it is that gay people are silly queens in silk robes and bad hair, screeching their way through a nightmare existence where you can find spiders on the kitchen floor and not find the right kind of organic fruit at Trader Joe's. His partner Mitchell gets trapped in a princess house that he tries to build for their daughter, although, goddamn does he ever kill it when he takes part in a flash mob performing "Free Your Mind." Gay people might not be able to build shit, but they love choreographing big dance numbers. Even when the show tries a mid-episode lesson about the "other," like when Cameron refuses to let their adopted Asian daughter take part in a racist commercial, it's quickly undermined: he walks off the set with the wrong Asian baby. They all look alike!

It's hard to have any sympathy for a show that gets so much mileage out of "fat, foreigners and fags," because you can't regularly grab your punchlines from "look at them!—they're different!" without malice creeping into the equation. Perhaps this accounts for why the show is so stridently moral about its concluding confessionals. Each one makes sure to rubber stamp each character with the label "GOOD PERSON," to make the audience at home feel okay about laughing at them. Why, you at home are a good person, too. Now check out this preview for next week's episode where Blobbo Queer says something super gay.

It also doesn't help that all this moralizing emerges from a completely weightless TV reality. For a show called Modern Family, it's economically indistinguishable from the unreal socioeconomic void of postwar television shows. The creators claimed that they drew their inspiration from talking about their families, and I suppose their vision might be 100% accurate if their goal were to showcase the modern families of successful TV producers who live in nice communities outside Los Angeles. In terms of resembling actual modern families, it's hopelessly backward even by the standards of The Simpsons or Roseanne, shows that are 21 and and 23 years old, respectively.

No one wants for anything in Modern Family's safe, upper-middle-class sanitized universe. God help you if you could remember anyone's actual job even halfway through the first season. Jobs are things for some other era of families; here there is no want, because money is something never lacking. A lot of great TV is escapism, meant to distract and entertain, but in the midst of the second greatest economic crisis in the last century of American history, when 14 million people are out of work — which doesn't account for chronic underemployment or people lost from the system — there's hardly a nod to any of the hard choices faced by families, even in a show with three different ones to choose from. If all the series' obvious old TV influences and borrowings didn't already give the lie to its name, then its almost total irrelevancy to the stakes of real people in the present day certainly does.

Compare all this, then, to the #1 most hosed series of this year's Emmy awards, the pitch-perfect Parks and Recreation. Not only does it have a sweet love story between two twentysomethings, a sweet love story between two thirtysomething careerists, a mustachioed but empathetic super-masculine beef- and scotch-enthusiast in sweaters, a would-be hip hop entrepreneur and his buddy Jean-Ralphio and his consultant (former NBA player) Detlef Schrempf, but the show manages to be hysterically funny without being mean. It might be the nicest show on television, even vying with daytime fare where consultants help resolve marriages between single moms and absent dads.

Sure, one character (Jerry) plays the Cliff Clavin role of universal doormat (but everyone loves Jerry, too), and the show eschews cruel sitcom zingers and repeated "othering" for the sake of finding comedy in a group of people who are obliged to work together but also still want to spend time with each other. It's no coincidence that co-creator Michael Schur's favorite show is Cheers, a sitcom that lasted 11 seasons by having people from all stations in life want to be together to find relief from their headaches and just be in each others' company.

Yet, despite that Cheers formula, Parks and Recreation doesn't escape from reality and instead finds some of its best comedy there. Its government department is run by a Libertarian who would gladly see it eliminated, and a depleted budget in this stagnant economy almost destroys it. Meanwhile, everyone has to confront the irrational mob of humanity for which they work: people who refuse sensible ideas out of fear or ideology, people who make irrational demands no government can satisfy and people who show up at council meetings to drone varyingly outraged/insane/moving things into the microphone. Each character confronts the challenge of enhancing their city with essential services and imbuing it with pride, without the budget to do so. Each tries, in even small ways, to improve a community riven with division, distrust, a lazy media and diminished opportunities. It not only manages to be one of the funniest shows on television, but also the sweetest and the most real.

On the other hand, you have Modern Family — to which it lost — a conventionally moralizing moral nullity that plays for mean gags in a noplace that neverwas. But at least it's familiar to voters, who have probably previously voted for all the shows to which it's deeply indebted. To borrow again from last year:
This probably explains the ATAS's love for it. It's a show on a major network that breathes life into the clunky, predictable and bland comedies that so many of its members have probably written. It's periodically humorous without ever posing any danger of subversion or cleverness. It's about an unusual family, but they do normal TV family things, like pack up 20 people and all go to Hawaii together. (It's a wonder the producers didn't have them accidentally leave a cute kid named Kevin at home to fend off burglars.) And in case the humor gets too arch by venturing outside the safe realm of jokes about the fat kid, or the sensitive kid, or the fat gay man or the thin gay man or the dad identical to Michael Scott or Ed O'Neill's old fart, there's a confessional at the end with heart. How do you know? Because the characters directly tell you that they have heart. Modern Family isn't just unfunny, it declines even to be rigorous about it.
It is probably the prohibitive favorite to win again next year.

The Emmys Are for Idiots, Part I, Part II and Part III.


  1. Am I the only one who thinks Sofia Vergara's vocal inflections in this show are intentionally played up just in case the viewer didn't get the fact that she's supposed to be a fucking Colooooooombian? Like the powers that be decided that she needed to more closely resemble the stereotypical speech patterns that middle class white people assume all Hispanic Americans adhere to? She's like the Colombian Apu except played without any intentional irony.

    I fucking hate that show.

  2. I saw this show by accident, the by-product of not knowing what the hell is on teevee and just surfing around, which I really have to fix someday, and was torn between disgust and boredom. And they fucking threw awards at this shit?

  3. Speaking of Ed O'Neill, I'm interested in either your or (more likely to be written) Brendle's take on John From Cincinnati, because one has to get into rather dicey analysis of seasons that never got made based on internet rumor and Milch's comments made in interviews, which may contradict the Death of the Author ethos to which I'm sure Brendle is a subscriber. But to address your points here, I just watched Breaking Bad instead. I'm surprised you actually bothered watching Modern Family enough to form such a well-informed opinion on it. Your wife must like it or something. By the way, you never addressed my comment about Mad Men on your last Emmy blog.

  4. Bill "BILL"September 19, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    What's your opinion on Louie?

  5. All Hail the Dictator for Life, Savior of the Nation, and Defender of the People. The people (i.e. me and my wife, who I will share this with later) thank you for giving us exactly what we want, which, in this case, is an idea of whether or not Modern Family is a good show. Apparently, the short answer (in the style of The Critic) is "It Stinks", and the people thank you for your comprehensive analysis of the general suckitude of Modern Family. We can safely cross it off the list of shows that we'll ever want to Netflix (or Qwikster, as the case may be).

  6. As I have fucking standards, I had nothing to do with this and resent that anyone would think I did.

  7. That's wa-a-a-y too much dissection and outrage over 22 minutes a week.

    P.S. I've never watched the show and don't plan to, Emmys notwithstanding.

  8. What's the fun of an award not judged by only 4.5% of its annual output?

  9. I am impressed by your ability to suffer through terrible shit so you can tear it apart later for our entertainment.

  10. With every person of otherwise good taste who recommends it, I'm getting more and more convinced that Community has an alternate audio track with good jokes hidden on the SAP channel and nobody's letting me in on the secret.

  11. I like Modern Family. Not in any kind of passionate, devotee-type fashion, but enough that it bears mentioning as a way of admitting potential bias. That, along with my TV consumption habits (80% of my TV watching comes via DVD) means I'm in the unenviable, and admittedly self-inflicted, position of potentially bringing a knife into a gun fight here, because I'm arguing against your argument having not watched a single episode of the show in 9 months.

    All that disclaimer shit out of the way, much of your argument against Modern Family is something I've heard before, mostly as it pertains to Glee, and it’s something I just don't really understand in this instance. I'm referring, of course, to the idea that these shows are attempting to seem progressive because "Look! We've got gay people and minorities and shit." but that progressiveness is negated because they just use these elements as props to point and laugh at. With Glee, that argument makes perfect sense, both because they literally have just about every minority group imaginable present and accounted for(indicating their desire to be "all-inclusive"), and because those characters are presented in full stereotypical glory. It's like the writers picked up an ethnicity multi-pac at Costco just so they could smash the contents of each individual bag to pieces.

  12. Modern Family is different, not because they treat their "other" characters with more respect than Glee does (they do, but we're talking a 3 vs. a 1 on a scale of 10), but because I don't think the inclusion of those "other" characters is something they are looking to be applauded for in the first place. A perfect example of how they aren't really trying came from one of the acceptances yesterday, in which they thanked the audience for praising the show's endeavors to promote tolerance by showing its ok for an older man to marry a hot woman. They aren't trying to seem progressive because they have a gay family. The gay family is an important part of the premise that there is "no one size fits all" modern family unit anymore. Their homosexuality makes perfect sense within the context of the show, and is not something thrown in for the sake of showing off how inclusive they are.

    In that context, the fact that both gay men cater to different portions of the overall gay stereotype also makes sense. I can appreciate the desire that Hollywood was capable of creating (more) gay characters that didn't scream their sexual orientation out to the world via neon letters on their forehead or in their speech. The presence of such a character in the show would be exceedingly noble. But it would also be exceedingly boring, in the same way that you and I (perhaps moreso the latter) are exceedingly boring. The show requires characters that are interesting, and though it may reveal some sort of hidden nastiness about society, the gay stereotype is significantly more interesting than a normal guy who is gay. What it seems like you are looking for is a straight man (in the comedic sense) who is also gay, but there are no straight men in Modern Family. All the characters, except perhaps the father, are characters that are different, and all of them are outlandishly so. The laughs resulting from any manipulation of these differences are certainly cheap, and if that's not your cup of tea, that's fine. Personally, I can put up with them without enjoying them all that much because I think some of the set pieces are fantastic.

  13. And besides, even as Modern Family creates their "other" characters, I don't think you give them enough credit for how they treat that "other". For example, you talk about the fat Hispanic kid and how they point and laugh at him for this, and then write off the fact that he is successful with the ladies because, and I'm paraphrasing, "that doesn't make sense". Isn't that the point? The kid is overweight, and instead of them utilizing his attempts to woo women as another opportunity to make fun of his obesity, instead they flip it on its head. Is that not exactly the type of "against the grain" thinking in regards to these stereotypes that you are looking for? Are they not communicating, repeatedly, that just because this kid has weight problems doesn't mean he can't still be capable of romance and seduction (as much as a 12 year old can, at least)?

    Or, going back to the gay characters, you specifically list out four attributes that Hollywood would never associate with a gay man without making mention that one of the two gay characters actually fills out 3 of the 4. Sure, he's fat and ridiculously, flamingly homosexual, but he loves sports, used to play football, stands up for himself via physical confrontation, and is exactly the type of self-assured person you seem to be looking for. No, he's not manly at all, but the marriage of these three attributes not normally associated with gay men to someone who is obscenely and obviously gay actually does more to remove the "other" label from homosexuality than your version of the "strong, silent gay". The overall goal here isn't "We should be tolerant of gay people because some of them are just like you and me except they like to sleep with their own sex." The goal is "it doesn't matter if a guy is the most stereotypical homosexual on the face of the earth, he's still a person that cannot be fully defined by the stereotype." Only once you get the general population to accept the truth of the second statement (along with the requisite "we shouldn't dislike someone because they are different" logic associated with it) will any true progress be made.

  14. If Modern Family is trying to be anything more than just a successful comedy, then its message is not that the “other” doesn’t exist. The message is that the “other” doesn’t mean anything, and that we all struggle with figuring that out. That’s why there’s a fat kid who successfully woos women, or a flaming fag who played football. You point out the scene with Cameron and his Asian baby as an attempt to teach the world about why the “other” is wrong which is undermined because he takes home a different Asian baby (a scene I’ve never seen, by the way, so I’m relying purely on your short description), but can’t that also be seen as a lesson, too? I mean, here’s a fat, flaming gay, subjected to just about all the “othering” possible in the world, he sees his daughter being used as a tool in this type of behavior, tries to put a stop to it, only to be guilty of the behavior himself? Having not witnessed this in person, I can’t speak about it with full confidence, but it seems to me the irony of that moment is the actual lesson. It’s one thing to think of the “other” as bad ideologically, and another thing altogether to completely remove the concept from your thought process.
    If you don’t like Modern Family because they make fun of character traits that shouldn’t be inherently funny, because those traits are inherently funny to the ignorant masses (i.e. taking advantage of the cheap laugh), that’s fine. As I said before, I can deal with them because I think the show has more than that going for it. If you want to criticize the show’s technique and plot lines as easy, lazy, and duplicative of all the stuff that came before, I can’t really argue with that. But the parts of your argument regarding Modern Family’s place as a champion of tolerance and progressive thinking are misplaced, both because you’ve not acknowledged any portions of the show that fly in the face of your argument, and because the very mantle you are taking away from them was never something they wanted. It’s a classic straw man, except you didn’t have to build it up yourself because somebody else built it for you. I can pretty much guarantee that when Modern Family’s creators came up with the show, “It preaches tolerance for “other” characters” was pretty low on the list of priorities behind “We think this is hilarious” and “We think it will make shit tons of money”.

  15. Sorry for the crazy multi-comment response, but you can't attempt to rebute a 3500 word piece without a fair amount of length yourself.


  16. C.A.,

    I see where you're coming from, and you may be right that I'm imputing progressive motives to the producers that they don't have. In my defense, I will say three things. One, that at least I'm in good company, since that seems to be a common element of critical appreciation for the show. Two, that even if my doing so offers a bad critique of the show, it works then as a good criticism of other critics' appreciation of the show and a good basis for why it still shouldn't get the accolades it does.

    Three, citing comedy writers making a joke about their progressiveness isn't really a good indicator of having zero progressive motives. It could just as easily be a good indicator of the opposite. After all, it's funnier to claim you're increasing awareness of how old dudes can have younger, hotter wives, because it's silly and because there are centuries of history to indicate the popularity of old and wealthy men bedding younger beauties. Right there, you're thumbing your nose at male privilege, while also being juvenile. More importantly, seriously claiming progressive moral bona fides only opens up more scrutiny and judgment (while alienating hidebound conservative viewers), officially pledging yourself to standards to which others can judge you while potentially denying yourself revenue streams. It's better to wink and joke and claim nothing, since critics love "subversiveness," and people are always delighted to find out that there's more there than meets the eye. Anyhow, onward:

    They aren't trying to seem progressive because they have a gay family. The gay family is an important part of the premise that there is "no one size fits all" modern family unit anymore.
    Or it could just be for cheap jokes. I'll get back to this in a bit, but a problem with your reply here is that it relies on contradictory premises. The show wants to make a statement that there is no "'one size fits all' family unit anymore," but it's not really a "progressive" show because it's all about cheap gags, except for when those cheap gags subvert expectations for a more progressive appreciation of characters. Okay.

    Moreover, if the above family premise were what they're going for, why is it almost totally socially homogeneous otherwise and economically homogeneous? I know comparing shit to The Simpsons is unfair, but this is a socioeconomic TV fantasyland that not only acts like Roseanne and The Simpsons didn't exist, but neither did Taxi or Barney Miller or Mary Tyler Moore. Basically, it's very easy to have a "one size fits all" family of pod people except for when you want a vector for gay jokes or lines about cocaine-snorting FARC militias.

  17. In that context, the fact that both gay men cater to different portions of the overall gay stereotype also makes sense. I can appreciate the desire that Hollywood was capable of creating (more) gay characters that didn't scream their sexual orientation out to the world via neon letters on their forehead or in their speech. The presence of such a character in the show would be exceedingly noble. But it would also be exceedingly boring, in the same way that you and I (perhaps moreso the latter) are exceedingly boring. The show requires characters that are interesting, and though it may reveal some sort of hidden nastiness about society, the gay stereotype is significantly more interesting than a normal guy who is gay.
    It's also significantly easier for bad writers to rely on than crafting a gay character without all the flamingly slapstick signposts of gayness. It also doesn't offer a soothing balm to viewers who are unsympathetic toward gay people and who can enjoy the show solely on a "hahaha look at those gay people!" mockery level. (This is a point I regret not emphasizing up top: that this show definitely gets to enjoy its cake and eat it too, when it comes to multiculturalism and sexuality, playing both for inclusiveness while also catering to demographics that will get off on their ridicule or humiliation.)

    Leaving aside the really loaded term "different portions of the overall gay stereotype" — in which, one supposes, the shrieking queen and the tightassed effete micromanager take the place of the panicky uneducated farm negro who screams that lightning is "Gawd in a mighty temper" and the slick spitshined Harlem pimp in the pantheon of "different portions of the overall black stereotype" — this is a really narrow simplification of human beings of any race or sexual preference and an indicator of bad writing, not good stuff. Your saying that creating a gay character that didn't scream his sexual orientation to the world would be boring is like saying nobody is interested in straight TV characters who aren't either Felix or Oscar. That's only true if the criterion is hewing to the terms of simpler TV structures that are already decades outdated.

  18. Finally, here's the nut:

    I don't think the inclusion of those "other" characters is something they are looking to be applauded for in the first place.... The laughs resulting from any manipulation of these differences are certainly cheap.... If you don’t like Modern Family because they make fun of character traits that shouldn’t be inherently funny, because those traits are inherently funny to the ignorant masses (i.e. taking advantage of the cheap laugh), that’s fine.... If you want to criticize the show’s technique and plot lines as easy, lazy, and duplicative of all the stuff that came before, I can’t really argue with that.... I can pretty much guarantee that when Modern Family’s creators came up with the show, “It preaches tolerance for “other” characters” was pretty low on the list of priorities behind “We think this is hilarious” and “We think it will make shit tons of money”.
    These are culled from throughout your response, but I think they do most of the work toward upending the two thoughtful paragraphs you have about Manny and Cameron. In them, you talk about how the fat kid being successful in love and the really effeminate gay guy being good at football subverts our expectations and tells us that the show isn't being exploitive of these characters but rather thoughtful and three-dimensional. At the same time, your main point and your concessions throughout assert that the show has no pretensions to progressiveness, relies on cheap laughs, probably has a profit motive, and is "easy, lazy, and duplicative of all the stuff that came before."

    What you suspect they're doing with Manny and Cameron then is some tertiary-level irony-and-subversion business that way exceeds the brief of a retread show looking for success and the easy gag. And in this case, the easy gag and Occam's Razor share a lot in common. A fat kid who thinks he's a Latin lover is funny; but a funnier gag is to have him be good at it. A fat effeminate gay guy is funny; but it's even funnier to picture him playing linebacker! It's even funnier if you can use that mental image to play "gotcha!" with Ed O'Neill's character and have him put his foot in his mouth. Even by the lights of your own argument, it's a lot easier to assume that they're doubling down on easy comedy than making any layered humanistic statement.

  19. Anyhow, don't worry about the long responses, CA. I enjoyed them, even if I didn't disagree with them. Thanks for taking the time to write them.

  20. @Haterbaby
    My wife doesn't own a television.

    Also, I went back and couldn't find any comment from you about Mad Men. Could you repost it. As for John From Cincinnati, you're definitely going to have to rely on Brendle for that, because I really don't want to devote any thinking to it.

  21. I can admit there aren't many holes in any of your responses, it's just a matter of how cynically one looks at the show and the writer's motivations. Where you see a show that takes the easy way all the time, I see a show that is capable of setting up a domino effect of comedy that indicates a certain level of intellect beyond the easy gags (I can't think of a specific example here, but remember watching a couple of episodes come together and being sufficiently impressed at the build up). Therefore, while I admit your Occam's Razor analoogy is a distinct possibility, I don't think it's the only viable option. It's simply a matter of perspective.

  22. The only point left to make is that I find our different cynicisms interesting. You don't believe the show's creators are capable of the type of deep and three-dimensional comedy I laid out, and yet hold it against them that they rely on any cheap gags in the first place. Meanwhile, I'm not cynical enough to think the authors are taking the easy way out all the time, and yet I am cynical enough to be willing to forgive them for the cheap gags that are in place because so many other successful comedies go that route a greater % of the time.

    Anyway, great writing as always, and thanks for the response. I take pride in the fact that my rebuttal wasn't stupid enough for you to truly eviscerate.

  23. First of all, fuck you for getting me to read all four of your Emmys posts when I had meant to get a bunch of writing done tonight. Just kidding, I love you. Great writing and great thoughts, all.

    Second, since you're more likely to respond here than on an old post let's talk sitcom pilots. From the way-too-many I've seen, I think I can name 8 great ones: Arrested Development, Community, Cheers, Newsradio, Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office (the British one), and The Thick of It (the British one). Would love to hear any more that you think qualify. Would love even more to know: have you seen VEEP? New HBO show created by Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, I'm Alan Partridge, etc.) starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It's the best sitcom pilot I've seen since Arrested.

  24. C.A
    The only point left to make is that I find our different cynicisms interesting.

    Yeah, that's always funny, isn't it? I read a few message board discussions of this piece, and invariably reactions broke down, even among really sharp people, on the basis of fandom. I tried to like the show on a few different occasions, coming back at the behest of friends, and it just didn't work for me. It works for you. Into those gaps, I pour diminished expectations, and you probably pour willingness to interpolate from generous or favorable expectations. I'm no different with what I like. If I think a show is good and watch it falter, I'll find some way to explain away that shortcoming, even if it means attaching an improbable theory to what's probably just a bad episode. I do the same with books and shows as a whole. Just the other week, I rated a Simpsons book better than it was because I just tend to have really positive feelings about the Simpsons.

    Anyhow, I'm glad you enjoyed reading even if you disagreed. I enjoyed your rebuttal a lot because so much of the disagreement posts about popular stuff tend to come down to "OMG ur jealous probably because ur so stupid." I don't know why anyone would be nice to that. Of course, smarter and better adjusted people probably just ignore it.

  25. Anonymous said...
    First of all, fuck you for getting me to read all four of your Emmys posts when I had meant to get a bunch of writing done tonight. Just kidding, I love you. Great writing and great thoughts, all.

    Second, since you're more likely to respond here than on an old post let's talk sitcom pilots. From the way-too-many I've seen, I think I can name 8 great ones: Arrested Development, Community, Cheers, Newsradio, Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show, The Office (the British one), and The Thick of It (the British one).

    Sorry I fucked up your workflow. Great pilots, man, that's a good question. I agree with all the ones you named. I haven't seen the new Iannucci, but I'm looking forward to it. I'd think you'd have to put both Partridge pilots on there, since Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge were both great and essentially two different shows. Monty Python and Fawlty Towers both emerged pretty well fully formed. Futurama's was a cut above, and 30 Rock seemed busier and less funny at first, but looking back it unpacked a ton of stuff and improved on knowing the series—which is the antithesis of a lot of pilots. Archer's was fucking fantastic. And as much as I dislike Family Guy and South Park, both of those pilots came out swinging and really set the tone.

    I can't remember it, but I feel like Barney Miller's was probably pretty good. Ditto M*A*S*H, whose first three seasons or so were phenomenal.

    I feel like you have to be asking about comedy pilots, because you don't mention any dramas. But for the sake of argument, I'd nominate all the classic HBO shows—Wire/Deadwood/Sopranos—as well as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks (if you can take it seriously), Law & Order (aired a few episodes into the season, but was still pretty much identical to the next 20 years, despite being filmed a year before all the other episodes of the season). And despite all the stupid lighting and slightly off pacing, the House pilot is pretty great. It sets up everything you need to know, all the beats and relationships and concerns, while being really funny. If it were shot in the same lighting as seasons two through four, it would look identical to all the other episodes.

    Good question, man. If it's any consolation, it's going to nag at me for hours now.

  26. Good call on Futurama. I had forgotten about that one despite rewatching it recently, and it's one of the best. And thanks for encouraging me to rewatch the M*A*S*H, Archer, Fawlty Towers, and both Partridge pilots, and check out Barney Miller (don't think I've ever even seen a full episode, embarassing!).

    I'm more of a sitcom nerd than a TV drama nerd, though I do love the pilots for Twin Peaks, The Wire, and Breaking Bad.

  27. @Anonymous

    Surprised you liked the Newsradio pilot so much, I'm one of the world's biggest Newsradio fans and I didn't love the pilot that much. Maybe it's just that it suffers in comparison to the brilliant first 3 seasons that followed.

  28. @Loretta8

    I think it introduces all the characters well and shows us what's funny about each of them, which is the most important thing in a pilot. My only gripe with it is that it spends too much time with departing manager Ed (Kurt Fuller), who we never see again.

    I thought of another great multicam pilot--"Lucky Louie," a show that I loved and apparently everyone else hated.

  29. Modern family is the best show ever. it is the one thing that brings my family together w/out us fighting. if you dont like the friggin show, don't frigging watch or reveiw it. thanks.
    ~peeved 14 year old

  30. Well, i think the gay people help us accept them. one of the gay guys are actually gay, and they're fine with the jokes. it has rly helped me accept them in our commuunity.

  31. I am going to come to your house and scream and beat your family, so it continues to fight and yell even when Modern Family is on. Stopping your family's suffering and pain to watch a show this bad is like interrupting a famine to eat a bowl of dysentery. I am going to fight your family. I am going to punch both of your parents in front of you. If you don't want to see somebody stomp a mudhole in your mom and dad, then walk them dry, don't read or comment on reviews you don't agree with.
    ~awesome 81-year-old with a penis like a fire hose

  32. I'm with you, Modern Family is atrocious. I scratched my head the few times I've watched it and thought, in the 60s or 70s, it never would have made it to pilot. The writing sucks. The acting sucks. No redeeming qualities whatsoever. I don't know anyone who likes this show actually. Personally I think it's unwatchable. Sofia V is just doing a new rendition of Charo. It's been done, and Charo was original and funny 50 years ago.


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