The State of the Sitcom
Tonight ABC is airing the premiere of the new half-hour comedy Modern Family. The premise of the show is the examination of several families, all of them in some way removed from the 1950s nuclear family. There are Jay and Gloria with at least a decade’s age difference between them and Gloria’s child from a previous marriage, the gay couple Mitchell and Cameron who have just adopted a baby, and the most conventional of the bunch, Phil and Claire. Although Phil and Claire have been married sixteen years and have three children, their household looks nothing like the Draper residence – Phil struggles to be the cool dad, Claire strives to be the all-powerful super mom, and they both carefully study their daily calendar to find time to discipline their son.
Modern Family does not revolutionize the classic sitcom subject matter. Sitcoms are built around family units (often actually relatives but roommates will do just fine), and undoubtedly the most common sitcom premise is the unusual family. Full House was about two bachelors moving into a house with a widower to help him raise his three daughters. Friends was about a group of young New Yorkers who were also occasionally lovers, siblings, roommates, and ex-spouses. On Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire there was awkward relative Will Smith, on Family Matters there was awkward neighbor Urkel, and on The Cosby Show the audience marveled at the daily life of a normal, comfortable, well-educated, African-American family.
Weird families are funny. But recently, the sitcom has been a dying genre because it has failed to keep pace with the increasing weirdness of the American family unit. The funniest half-hour comedies of recent years have had to either turn the genre on its head and joke about the whole premise (see, How I Met Your Mother) or scrap the sitcom altogether and reinvent the form (awesomely, The Office).
All of which is to say, Modern Family is actually quite entertaining. And it’s because the show reclaims classic sitcom territory, the contemporary American family, with an entirely new central idea – sure, these people don’t look like The Donna Reed Show, but their families are not unusual. They are quirky, self-involved, misguided, defensive, distracted individuals, but they don’t need to rely on their unconventional family arrangements for humor. For them (and, of course, for us) nothing here is startling. We can laugh at the challenges of two gay men raising a daughter without feeling forced into sociological discovery, but we still get the thrill of recognizing truth in the comedy. Like the best sitcoms, we crack up because a gay man is holding his new daughter aloft as music plays “The Circle of Life,” both because it’s ridiculous and because it’s actually the circle of life.
Between Modern Family, Community, and the new seasons of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom is in a surprisingly healthy place. I am surprised. I am pleased.