On TV: Modern Family

Movieline Score:

"Unconventional" family units are the most reliable hallmark of the modern sitcom, like it or not. I Love Lucy's interracial marriage led to the single-parent bliss of My Three Sons, which beget The Brady Bunch's sprawling step-family, which led to the tense divorce situation of One Day at a Time, which went on to nearly kill us with that horrible dead parents show On Our Own. The next chapter, ABC's Modern Family, gives us both a gay couple and a May-December second marriage, and it may represent a glimmer of ingenuity in the joyless tundra of new comedy in 2009.

Modern Family follows three very different families that we soon find out are all related. How very Playing By Heart, ABC. One family comprises an older, slightly cantankerous stepdad Jay (Ed O'Neill), his much younger, second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), and her young son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). The second family is made of Jay's openly gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), and their newly adopted baby from Vietnam, while the last family consists of Jay's daughter Claire (Julie Bowen), her husband Phil (Ty Durrell), and their three kids. The family's adventures are being filmed by a Dutch film crew who want to release a documentary in the Netherlands, a device that allots each family member time for camera confessionals, à la The Office. It's not annoying, actually.

When nitpicking at this decent series, one might notice that its AYSO soccer game scenes and jokes about sharing toys can seem a little too family-friendly, maybe even just dated. But this show doesn't pretend that its familial confines are revelatory, and it plays each scene with an unpretentious sense of realism. When Jay wears a sweatsuit to the mall and is mistaken for a geriatric "mall walker," his astonishment is well-timed, funny, and never trying for more than a fast chuckle. Playing it straight (pun intended) has its downsides too: While the gay couple is meant to lend Modern Family a modicum of edge, their scenes of painting the baby's bedroom and introducing their new child to the rest of the family using campy Lion King "Circle of Life" accompaniment is so tame that you might snarl. You have to understand that you're getting unobjectionable, upbeat comedy here, and even though it won't make you laugh out loud, you'll realize that's not a requirement when the cast is so easy to watch.

Besides Jay, the best character on the whole show is Phil, the tragically uncool, bemused father who acts as scapegoat to his Kate Gosselin-conjuring housewife's neurosis. He also gives the best camera confessionals, once giddily noting that he "could defeat you if it came to a physical confrontation" in his baby bear, lullaby-like voice. While I'm not sure that Modern Family will wow anyone, it will certainly introduce a fun new brand of beige, palatable comedy -- and in 2009, even that level of originality is a memorable refreshment.