When something happens 100 times, can it still be considered new and modern?
That’s the question posed by Modern Family, a series that, with just its title, brands itself as of-the-times progressive, and maybe even edgy. When the ABC sitcom, about the changing shapes of the branches that make up a family tree, many critics and even more TV viewers felt it lived up to that branding.
On Wednesday night, the comedy airs its 100th episode. Five seasons in, does the show still embody the mission of its title?
What made Modern Family so forward when it premiered in 2009 wasn’t the fact that two of its main characters, Eric Stonestreet’s Cam and Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Mitchell, were gay and in a committed relationship, or that when Cam presented their new adopted child Lion King-style in the pilot, the rest of the family was as overjoyed as if they had just visited any other couple’s first born in the neonatal unit of a hospital after the mother had given birth. Gay couples had been a fixture on TV—even broadcast TV—for years by that point, and their relationships had been depicted with increasing dignity.
Its modern-ness also wasn’t just owed to the extent to which viewers and critics embraced the show, which surged in ratings and instantaneously became an award-show darling. It was the ambivalent shrug of the shoulders with which they embraced it. They didn’t love the show because—OMG!—it starred a gay couple or a feisty Latina or talked about adoption and immigration and sex and what not. They loved the show because it was funny.
Nonetheless, because of the title’s branding as “modern” and “current,” and because of the sociopolitical debate at the time of its premiere, the idea of Modern Family quickly became more important than the show itself.
The series became a political platform. Whether it was when Barack Obama embraced the label of “pop-culture president” or traced back to Bill Clinton blaring sax on Arsenio Hall’s show—or even before—an Us Weekly-ready “Leaders of the Free World, They’re Just Like Us” mandate was thrust on our presidents prospectus: be hip to “hip” TV.
For all of the “Barack has good taste because he loves Homeland” and “Mitt is down with the younguns because he has a soft-spot for Snooki” talk that sidetracked the 2012 election, there was one television show that marked the intersection of pop culture politics: just how much do you love Modern Family?
Michelle Obama said her family loved the show because, well, it would positively un-Obaman for them not to. And Ann Romney? In 2012 she asserted that she and husband Mitt also like the show very much. Republicans can be modern, too.
With its chaste depiction of a same-sex relationship, the frank ambivalence with which it both spotlights Sofia Vergara’s race and makes little to-do over the fact that she’s in an interracial marriage, and the traditional family values projected (albeit so frenziedly) by the Dunphys, there’s just enough progressiveness for conservatives who express their love for Modern Family to prove they're not completely out-touch socially without alienating their core. It also embodies everything that liberals are supposed to champion, with the added benefit of proving that progressive politics don’t come at the expense of basic family values.
Because it so swiftly dominated the television landscape across all demographics in a way that few series, particularly comedies, are able to do, Modern Family became the perfect example of how a “modern” TV series transcends an existence as merely primetime programming to become a vital part of culture-at-large. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times just prior to the 2012 election, “Modern Family is not just a television show; it’s the meeting place of the undecided, those wavering few who many determine who will control the remote in the West Wing.”
The result of all this is that the show—already noteworthy for the mere fact that it was hilarious—became a cause.
Perturbed that Mitch and Cam were noticeably shier when it comes to PDA then their hetero counterparts, Modern Family fans launched a Facebook campaign in 2010 to pressure the show’s writers into showing a same-sex smooch. It worked. (If you blinked, you missed it.)
When Proposition 8 was overturned over the summer in California, where Modern Family takes place, eager fans all-but demanded Mitch and Cam get engaged this season. They did. Was the plot development a natural progression in the narrative the show’s writers had envisioned, or a knee-jerk reaction to the pressures of a Twitter-empowered viewing audience? Perhaps a little of both.
Of course one just needs to read the newspaper and have a basic pulse on the debates polarizing the country right now to know that Modern Family is a timely show. But it’s timely in the way that any series about people living in a modern time.
Could Frasier Crane conceivably be a successful talk-radio therapist in 1997? Sure. Could Rachel Greene and Ross Gellar believably fall in love in Greenwich Village in the early ‘00s? Of course. Could Mitch and Cam bring their adopted daughter to preschool without the school’s parents chasing them out with pitchforks? Well, yes.
Great TV shows reflect our lives back at us, even if it is with the fun-house distortion that sitcoms routinely pull off. We’re intrigued by Modern Family because of those things that make it so-called “modern,” none more so than its insistence on giving equal weight to the relationship of same-sex characters on the show as it does to those of the straight couples. But we like Modern Family because it is actually so very traditional: the relationship of those same-sex characters is portrayed, really, as boring and mundane as those of the straight couples.
That’s what, 100 episodes later, we tune in to enjoy: comedy about people who are just like us … and there’s nothing particularly modern about that.