When Modern Family burst onto the scene last fall, television hadn’t seen a successful family comedy since Everybody Loves Raymond ended in 2005. But by fusing together the mockumentary style of Christopher Guest’s films, ditching the laugh track and the studio audience, and focusing on vignettes that connect to the audience’s lives, creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd reinvigorated the category, imbuing Modern Family with both brains and heart.
Cut to a year later, when ABC’s decidedly Modern Family has scored a staggering 14 Emmy nominations for its freshman season, which lured approximately 9.7 million viewers per week. The show, celebrated by critics and viewers alike, will compete against NBC comedy stalwarts The Office and 30 Rock, Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, and the recent Seinfeld reunion-fueled season of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the honor of Best Comedy.
Whereas Modern Family mines the truth of their characters’ lives to comic effect, Glee makes them jump through hoops.
And, oh, a little show called Glee, which itself scored 19 nominations.
Given that neither The Office nor 30 Rock, both past recipients of Outstanding Comedy, had their best seasons last year and that the dark horse contender Nurse Jackie might prove to be a bit too dark for Academy voters, the frontrunners in this category would seem to be M odern Family and Glee.
But while Glee—created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—undoubtedly is a ratings success for Fox, has spawned bestselling soundtracks and a tour, is it a comedy? Glee, following in the footsteps of Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, and Ally McBeal, is competing against half-hour shows whose sole focus is the funny, while it ricochets between teen angst, histrionic drama, and psychedelic musical numbers.
Which isn’t Glee’s fault, of course: It is far easier to shoehorn Glee into the comedy category than have it compete with weighty dramas like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. But does it mean that it should be included with the comedies?
“I don’t want to start a fight with Glee,” said Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, talking to The Daily Beast a few weeks before the Emmy Awards. “Certainly, they seem different than all of the other shows because they are an hour. I don’t know how that will affect them in the judging. Maybe it’s an advantage; maybe it’s a disadvantage. We will see.”
For his part, Levitan was extremely diplomatic when discussing Glee’s inclusion in the category.
“I certainly think that there are comic moments in Glee; I’m not denying them that,” said Levitan. “Right now, the rules say that you can enter however you want and there have certainly been other shows in the past that one could have asked the same question about. It’s tricky though. They are very different beasts.”
“I saw one comment by The Hollywood Reporter that I thought was very ill-informed,” he continued. “It declared that Glee was the frontrunner because their scripts are twice as long. Which would be appropriate if the category, if instead of Best Comedy, were to be longest comedy. But length doesn’t have anything to do with this. Well, you could say, like in life.”
While Levitan was being diplomatic, there are a number of factors at play here. For one, despite the admission of the show into the Best Comedy category, the majority of Glee’s humor seems to stem from one main source: Jane Lynch, who is herself up for an Emmy Award as well (and who recently was awarded a Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy). While no one denies Lynch’s uncanny comic timing and ability to deliver the most withering of lines, she—and perhaps Heather Morris’ space cadet cheerleader Brittany—represent the glittering apex of Glee’s comic abilities.
Additionally, despite having a season under their belt, Glee’s cast of characters—put-upon teachers, scheming Cheerios coaches, and peppy glee club singers—remain frustratingly one-dimensional. (There are a few exceptions: Chris Colfer’s Kurt, who brings flamboyant flair and wicked humor to the table, and Dianna Agron’s Quinn, whose pregnancy gave the season an emotional spine, remain two of the more well-drawn characters on the show.)
Not so with Modern Family, where Levitan, Lloyd, their writing staff, and the actors have imbued the members of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan with nuances that make them universally likable, despite their flaws and eccentricities. Whereas Glee’s kids can seem stuck in the same stereotypes we originally found them in—jock, sassy black girl, gay kid, stuck-up princess, rebel, etc.— Modern Family’s characters have grown and expanded as they tackled a slew of situations that beset all of us in our own daily lives.
Which is where a lot of Modern Family’s laugh-out-loud comedy stems from: real life. “It seems like people really like the show,” said Levitan. “It seems to strike an emotional chord with people.”
It’s that emotional chord that gives the show its strength and verve, especially when compared to the saccharine nature of Glee and its forced drama. Whereas Modern Family mines the truth of their characters’ lives to comic effect, Glee makes them jump through hoops that don’t so much find the funny as they do reinforce the fact that the reset button gets hit at the end of each episode.
It’s also telling that all but one of Modern Family’s sprawling adult cast are themselves up for Emmy awards as well, including Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Sofia Vergara, and Julie Bowen. The one egregious oversight? Ed O’Neill, who failed to garner a Best Supporting Actor nod. (“Ed is gracious enough to say that… five deserving actors were left out, including all of the kids,” said Levitan.)
Matched ensemble against ensemble, Modern Family has a far stronger team of comic players, each equally proficient in banter, pratfalls, and allowing their own personal lives to be mined for comedic profit by the show’s talented writing staff. Among the standouts: Fizbo the clown; Bowen’s Claire almost getting derobed by an escalator; Phil’s iPad obsession; and nearly anything involving Manny (Rico Rodriguez), a pre-teen with a penchant for espresso and smoking jackets.
Glee, on the other hand, seems trapped between a need to be maudlin and an odd hallucinatory quality where the musical performances—the main set pieces for the series—are enacted in grand style and without any real logic or tethering in reality. While the showrunners consistently promise character development and growth, they deliver guest stars, an onslaught of songs, and less and less genuine emotion along the way. Faced between goosing the drama (Fake pregnancy! Inter-school rivalry! Impromptu love triangles!) and creating compelling characters, the writers always choose the former.
All of which means less comedy in the bones of the show. Ask Murphy about what’s coming up next season on Glee and his answers tend to fall into the same pitfalls as before (There will be an all-Britney Spears episode and she’ll make a cameo! They’re in talks with Susan Boyle for a Christmas episode!) rather than addressing the main problem with the show: For a musical-comedy, it delivers more than enough music but very little comedy.
• Click here for our full Emmy's coverageModern Family, next season, however, is sticking to its strengths as Levitan reads off upcoming plots from the storyboards in the writers' room, storylines involving Manny going on a date, Alex’s first kiss, Lily biting another baby, Phil and Gloria dealing with a barking dog, and more.
“It’s all slice-of-life stuff,” said Levitan. “It’s a continuation of last season but I think that they will be big funny episodes that people will like. If people liked last season, they’re going to love this season.”
If there’s any justice at the Academy, it will be Modern Family taking home the statuette at the end of the month for it truly is the best comedy on television right now. But Levitan, meanwhile, says that he’s preparing for the worst and doesn’t have an Emmy acceptance speech written yet.
“No, I do not,” said Levitan. “But if you have one, please send it over.”
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.