By Mado Gianni,
Modern Family. Eleven seasons. Eleven years. So many episodes. Not an easy one to binge on Netflix. Definitely one of the cons of streaming. A situational comedy or a sitcom is any type of comedy television series that creates an array of characters who imitate life to its furthest and realest extent.
One huge constant that sitcoms are built on is time. Time is never important for any of the characters as they are always busy taking care of situations that just erupted or going on about their very ordinary days. The writers create the comedy by developing specific qualities of a character’s personality. Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) always gets super excited when a new idea pops up, he is always willing to spend time with everyone just for the sake of having fun, he sees potential in every single idea, and he lights up the mood. Of course, in the meantime he trips over, he is misunderstood, or he just gets too crazy.
Episode after episode, the viewer gets acquainted with all the characters. We learn about their best qualities but also their weaknesses, their insecurities, their troubles. We empathize with them. When Gloria Delgado (Sofia Vergara) realizes that from a Latino mother who worked as a cab driver with her 5-year-old sleeping in the back of the car, she has become like every other American mother, shopping in the mall while yoga class has got cancelled, it is rather comical. It might not be hilariously funny, but it is a kind of comforting humour.
Underneath all that, a frame is being constructed for a picture to be painted. The family picture. But even if the series is trying to imply that it wants to get to that cathartic idealization of the prefect family, every episode comes its way to dispute that. Because there is not a perfect family. In fact, the show argues that what makes a family perfect are its imperfections. Haley Dunphy (Sarah Hyland) gets kicked out of college, lives in her parents’ basement, gets pregnant with twins and gets married at what? 25? Yet, her carefree lifestyle and the confidence she is brewing within her make her character a perfect addition to this portrait.
But don’t get her parents wrong. Just because they don’t kick her out both Phil but mainly Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) is the one accumulating all that stress that she has to one way or another let out otherwise she will burst. For anyone who has ever experienced stress in life, they know that stress can be productive, and it can be counter-productive. It is counter-productive when you lash out on someone, when you let anger overcome you and when you start resenting others for having caused that to you. But it can be productive when you make it humorous.
No, I am not arguing that real life can be compared to a situational comedy. Far from it. I don’t buy for one second that Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) can argue at such a rate and then make up over and over again. It is unreal to create so much drama out of a clown’s costume or a fridge that talks. Or that Haley and Alex Dunphy (Ariel Winter) can so serenely make peace with each other’s personalities while sharing a room for 18 years. Not in my wildest dreams.
Sitcoms build on this technique. It’s called the “avoiding negative outcome” technique and it paves the way to creating a problem out of literally nothing. This strategy is employed when one character is trying to do something without the other one knowing about it. Why? Well, in sitcoms it is a way to be gentle by avoiding anyone’s feelings getting hurt and creating some good laughs out of it. In real life, it is more like you are doing this in order not to emit any kind of emotion. Not to be vulnerable. Just feigning interest or knowledge of an embarrassing event or realization, praying that it will soon be forgotten. In short, ignoring your emotions.
We are definitely mastering at that, out here in the real world, the same way that Jay Pritchett (Ed O’ Neill) is continuously trying to uphold in Modern Family. The implication of the old generation, of harsher times and stricter emotional rules. That is why audiences love sitcoms so much. Because they let us feel what we did not allow ourselves to feel before through farcical but also humane characters and amusing but also sincere situations. Then again, some of them are especially skilled in making us laugh our guts out. Which is another important thing that we should not forget to do.
Television has that continuous nature. It makes you feel close to your characters until you have to let them go. Finale: Part 1. Alex is going to Switzerland. Haley is getting a house with her husband and two sons. Luke is going to the University of Oregon. “Weird, huh?”, says Alex. Claire’s face represents the end of an era. Closure. Joey, Phoebe, Monica, Ross, Chandler and Rachel are looking at the empty New York apartment that they rather maturely came of age. A single empty-looking shot that speaks to us in volumes. And then again, some of them are just forever.
Modern Family ran from September 2009 to April 2020. Chile, Greece and Iran bought the rights and adapted the series for their own national audiences.
- Scriptnotes (podcast) by John August and Craig Mazin. Available here.