Stop Hating on ‘Modern Family’ (But Also Stop Giving It Emmys)

The ABC comedy, while still entertaining, stopped being groundbreaking long ago, and serves largely as comedy comfort food. Here’s how to fix it.

10.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Last week’s Modern Family culminated, as many of its better episodes often do, with the extended clan gathered together, this time to watch the video of Mitchell and Cameron’s (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) nuptials. A frantic Phil (Ty Burrell), who knows the footage will reveal he was Patient Zero for the nasty bug that has worked its way through the whole family, warns that the video might not show people looking their best. That prompts an intriguing response from family patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill): “It’s good. It’s about time we all started seeing ourselves as who we really are, not who we’re trying to be or who other people want us to be!”

The words could just as easily be directed at Modern Family itself, which enters its sixth season in the unusual position of being simultaneously celebrated and vilified. On one hand, it remains one of TV’s most popular shows, and draws more viewers in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo than ABC’s other darlings, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Yet it also returns in the midst of a vicious backlash, prompted by outrage over the show—which many see as gasping creatively—improbably nabbing its fifth consecutive Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series, snatching the trophy from the likes of Louie (come on!), Veep (are you kidding me?) and Orange is the New Black (what the holy hell?!).

So, following Jay’s advice and putting all the hoopla aside, it’s time to examine how good—or bad—Modern Family really is at this point in its run. After watching Season 6’s first three solid episodes, it’s clear that Modern Family is much better than many of its haters remember. It’s still reliably and solidly funny, capable of several genuine laughs each week, which is more than most network comedies can say. But equally evident is the fact that the show, while still entertaining, stopped being groundbreaking long ago, and serves largely at this point as comedy comfort food.

Modern Family was that all-too-rare comedy that was near-perfect from the outset, juggling a trio of family units—lovable-yet-geeky Phil and perfectionist Claire (Julie Bowen); prickly Jay and much-younger second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara); tightly-wound Mitchell and dramatic-with-a-capital-D Cameron—that all happen to be related (Jay is Claire and Mitchell’s father). In 2009, ABC made the bold move of screening the pilot in its entirety—instead of the usual two-minute “sizzle reel”—to advertisers and media at its annual May upfronts, something that no network has done since. An instant hit when it debuted that fall, Modern Family helped save the family sitcom, which had been languishing since Everybody Loves Raymond’s demise in 2005. And featuring a gay couple in a long, committed relationship—who triumphantly and sweetly wed in May after gay marriage was legalized in California—was an important, groundbreaking step for television.

But that early innovation largely stopped once its universe and the show’s mockumentary format were solidified in its first season. Now it’s familiar in the ways that so many long-running sitcoms (including Raymond) were, hitting the reset button at the start of the next episode and wiping the slate clean of whatever lessons its characters had learned the previous week. But running in place doesn’t cut it anymore, not when comedies like Parks and Recreation, Community, Louie, Veep, Girls, Orange is the New Black, and now the peerless Transparent are constantly pushing buttons, and pushing the envelope. When compared with that group, Modern Family shouldn’t even be nominated for Emmys at this point, much less be walking away with trophies.

While none of the six main characters have been allowed to evolve since the pilot, that doesn’t stop them from making the most of their material. So far, this season’s standout is Vergara, a gifted physical comedian—and no, I’m not talking about using her chest for comic effect, though she’s done her share of that on the show. She fearlessly embraces everything, from sight gags to pratfalls.

In the premiere episode, Gloria’s angry response when Jay tells her that she “overdoes it,” was to give herself an extreme make-under, and Vergara relished the chance to look and act her worst onscreen. A week later, she got the episode’s biggest laugh by manically smashing the rabbit statue Jay had made for her in pottery class, to search for what she assumed was the “real” gift inside. She might be pigeonholed for her accent and looks (like during this year’s embarrassing Emmy sketch, which literally put her on a revolving pedestal), but as this season has shown, she’s capable of so much more than that.

Yet she and her castmates remain reined in by the show’s rigid format, in which all three family’s storylines are weighted equally. As a result, they frequently hit the same story beats and rarely surprise. When Phil and his kids Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Luke (Nolan Gould) were trapped in a room doing what they thought was a college psychology experiment, it quickly became obvious that they were just in the waiting room, and the test hasn’t actually begun yet. A welcome exception was last week’s unexpected flashback to “the pinkeye apocalypse” at Yosemite, where Phil, who had pinkeye, passed his binoculars around to everyone else. In a show that so frequently telegraphs its moves, it was a welcome change to be surprised.

It’s a shame it doesn’t happen more. Given this still-vibrant ensemble, I wish the writers would shake things up, and give the actors some fresh storylines to bounce off of. How about attempting something truly modern, and splitting up one of the couples, even if it’s only temporary? It’s a twist that would mirror the behind-the-scenes rift between the show’s own creators, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, who now run the show separately, alternating episodes in a unique, and fascinating, joint-custody arrangement. That’s a captivating story arc, if not a whole season’s worth of material, just there for the taking.

The obvious choice for which couple should go their separate ways: Mitch and Cam, who despite very occasional declarations of affection (largely in the wedding proposal and wedding episodes), regularly come across as one of the most bitter, loveless couples on television. Even the show acknowledged as much when Mitch called his sister and says, “I think Cam and I made a huge mistake,” and she—rightfully so—assumes he is talking about getting married. It’s long past time for Mitch and Cam to deal with the serious issues in their relationship, and examine how that fallout would reverberate throughout the show.

Not that Modern Family would ever make such a daring move at this point. However, there at least is one area where the producers have had change forced upon them, whether they like it or not: the ever-sprouting kids in the cast, who have all matured surprisingly well onscreen. Teens are often a creative black hole on shows like these, but Modern Family’s child characters are frequently even more entertaining than their parents are. The junior set stole the show in the season’s second episode, which included Alex’s (Ariel Winter) college tour visit and Lily’s (Audrey Anderson-Emmons) inability to smile sweetly for her family’s new mantle photo.

Ah, Lily. While all of the kid actors are praise-worthy, Mitch and Cam’s daughter remains the show’s secret weapon, as has been the case for two seasons. Anderson-Emmons has been the show’s greatest discovery in these rockier recent seasons, tossing out withering, deadpan zingers on par with any of the adults: “It sure was nice when this house wasn’t full of bees!” Or, after a surprise party greeting for Gloria goes awry, “Just a thought: maybe we should stop doing these.”

Lily is now my favorite character on the show and I would watch every second of a Lily spinoff (imagine the therapy sessions alone!), but I also admire the show’s restraint in featuring her. A lesser, more desperate series would be plying her with catchphrases and recalibrating the show around her. At least for now, Modern Family is taking the less-is-more approach, and resisting turning it into The Lily Show.

Which indicates that the show still has plenty of life left in it without resorting to such extreme measures. While the last two seasons have been bumpy at times, Modern Family is off to a strong start this season, with three winners in a row for the first time in a long while. It continues to be better than most of the other comedies—especially family comedies—on broadcast TV. And that’s something to be commended for, but not rewarded. In its sixth season, Modern Family is still worthy of adoration from audiences—just not Emmy voters.