Modern Family won five Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series for its first five seasons. The voters got it right, I’d say for the first three seasons, but it’s criminal that the fifth season bested more worthy contenders like Louie or Veep (not to mention that the vastly superior Parks and Recreation wasn’t even nominated). My issue with the automatic wins for the show isn’t because the show’s bad – it’s not. Even at its most mediocre, it’s still better than most sitcoms on TV, but the fifth season felt like it had equal moments of lulls and highs. One cannot expect shows to be on top of their game forever, and the first three seasons of Modern Family are classic TV and cement a legacy that the creators – Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan – should be proud of.
That said, it feels like a lot of the fifth season of Modern Family was simply lazy phoning it in. The major story arc has Cameron and Mitchell finally get married after gay marriage becomes legal in California. While that’s a great way to fold in a potentially-difficult social issue into a MOR sitcom, it becomes problematic when the gay couple about to get married come off as irritating as fuck. The writers struck gold when they cast Eric Stonestreet as the effusive and demonstrative Cameron and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the uptight Mitchell. The two actors share a great chemistry and Stonestreet is a marvelous physical comedian. The two also have a mastery of the snarky one-liners – unfortunately, the writers exploit the talents, having Cam and Mitch engage in bitchy verbal slapfests throughout the season as the stress of planning a wedding takes a toll on their marriage. I’m not saying they should be lovey-dovey, but judging by the fifth season of the show, Mitch and Cam can barely stand each other. The sniping – while sometimes funny – undermines any kind of emotional truth or value.
While the gay marriage arc is the most developed, there are other story lines that tie the episodes together. Claire and Phil Dunphy are dealing with Luke’s first day of high school, while Haley is still trying to find herself after getting kicked out of college, and Alex is feeling the pinch of growing pains. And Claire finally returns to the workforce, getting a job working for her dad’s closet manufacturing company.
I was always a little mystified why Claire didn’t work outside the home for the show’s run. It made no sense, and made the title of the show Modern Family a bit off-point. As Claire, Emmy-winner Julie Bowen is often very solid, though she can rely too much on being very brittle. She does do a mean slow burn though (Bea Arthur would’ve been proud). As her man-child husband, Phil, Ty Burrell is easily a first among equals, being able to levitate a lot of the material – even the ho-hum ones. And the child actors are growing up nicely – Sarah Hyland as Haley especially had a strong year in the fifth season, imbuing her character with a vulnerability that makes her flailing sad and relatable. As the over-achiever, Alex, Ariel Winter does some good work, as well, even being gifted with an episode that essentially worked as a one-woman show during which she opened up to a therapist after having a meltdown at a birthday party. Nolan Gould’s also good, though it’s clear that the writers are struggling to figure out what to do with an adolescent Luke.
Though their story lines are much lighter in the fifth season, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara still offer some of the heartiest laughs. O’Neill as patriarch Jay has always been able to impart a deep intelligence to all of his performances, even when playing the proudly idiotic misanthrope, Al Bundy on Married…with Children. His work is so understated, that he often gets forgotten, but that’s unfair because he’s an integral part of the show. And as Gloria, Jay’s gorgeous trophy wife, Vergara has perfected her Lucille Ball-meets-Charo act. Gloria has been stretched out and broadened throughout the five seasons to capitalize on Vergara’s outstanding skills as a comedienne, but unfortunately, the writers have shortchanged her on deeper, more emotional moments (it’s not surprising that the actress was snubbed at last year’s Emmy nominations). In the Jay/Gloria story lines, the two are raising a little kid, while helping Gloria’s teenaged son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) navigate through high school. Like Luke, Manny’s life has changed significantly, but it seems to be for the better: his dandy affectations and eccentricities actually make him popular with his classmates.
As I wrote earlier, the big gay wedding dominates the fifth season. This means that we get some social commentary, though little of it is terribly pointed or trenchant, but that’s okay, we don’t expect Modern Family to proselytize. If anything, the show works its ass off to show how normal and average gay couples are. In fact, of the three couples on Modern Family, Mitch and Cam are the least affectionate and last demonstrative. They raise their daughter, Lily (the brilliant scene-stealer, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and live a suburban life (remember how bored Claire was when she went out on the town with them?). All of this admirable, but it feels a bit craven to bleed out any love, passion, and sexuality from the relationship, and replace it with bickering: at times, Mitch and Cam resemble a gay take on The Lockhorns. And the big gay wedding episode? Well, it’s not the event that it’s meant to be, even though it’s a two-parter, loaded with recurring guest stars and topped off by a tear-jerking voice over by Claire, the easy jokes and the episodic nature work against the emotion (though the image of Jay and Gloria walking Mitch down the aisle seems right).
As with the other seasons, there are some big names who stop by – Nathan Lane returns as Pepper, Mitch’s and Cam’s (and Jay’s, for that matter) pal who plans the wedding (and does so without any kind of deference to good taste); Justin Kirk is Mitch’s skeevy, feckless boss; Andrew Daly’s Cam’s principal; Fred Willard comes back as Phil’s goofy, pop, Frank; Adam DeVine creeps Jay and Manny out as Gloria’s choice as nanny; Peri Gilpin uses her throaty growl as a hooker Fred hired in error; Jordan Peele stops by as Jay’s nemesis, vying for a great parking spot; Jesse Eisenberg guests as an annoying eco-activist; Jane Krakowski battles Gloria to edge Manny out of a Washington, DC trip; Stephen Merchant, Fred Armisen, and Patton Oswalt appear in a Vegas-themed episode; and as Jay’s best buds, Shorty and Darlene, Chazz Palmintiri and Jennifer Tilly guest star in one of the show’s brightest episodes. Also fan favorite (though not mine), Rob Riggle’s recurring Gil Thorpe appears in the season as well, to needle Phil. The big names usually do very well, but the stunt casting does feel a bit Here’s Lucy at times.
If I sound down on Modern Family it’s only because I was spoiled by its excellence in the first few years. By now, it’s merely a good show, when at one point it was an excellent one. These slides in quality are inevitable, and it’s clear that the limitations of the show are starting to come out. Namely that with a cast this large, it’s difficult to give each character equal growth and development. Which is why we see Claire becoming more interesting and complex, while poor Gloria is regressing. I’d love to see Gloria struggle a bit with her own middle-aged crisis, and it’d be nice to see her get a job (her lady of leisure is a bit strange – she doesn’t even do good work). In one episode, she boasts that she’s so busy she’s the “How can she do it?” Gloria, except I know how she can do it: she’s got buckets of money, help, and a son who is willing to mother his own baby brother. This criticism is no knock against Vergara, who is still my favorite comedienne, and who does some fantastic work, but she really deserves more.
The sixth season has quite a hefty task in that it must restore some of the goodwill lost by the unevenness of the fifth season. This means giving Jay and Gloria more to do than simply harp on their age difference, her beauty, and his money. This also means making Mitch and Cam behave like a married couple and not to coworkers who don’t get along. I would also like to see Haley figure out her life – having her be a somewhat sad sack living in her parents’ basement is too limiting. Too often, the writers rely on the “Haley’s the hot one, so she’s also the dumb one” joke – an unfortunate trope that needs to be buried (sexuality and intelligence can coexist). Still, the sixth season does hit some great highs – the aforementioned Las Vegas episode encapsulates what made Modern Family so wonderful: it’s a well-constructed farce with hilarious writing, sight gags, and energetic, heartfelt acting. More episodes like “Las Vegas” are needed to return the show to its early glory days.