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.