ABC's Wednesday Comedies: Can Modern Family, Suburgatory, and The Middle Stand Up to Happy Endings?

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With three reruns in last night's ABC comedy block and one very excellent new episode of Happy Endings, it's time to address the elephant in the room.

All four shows are great, but Happy Endings has been headlining for a reason: It's not fair to make any of the other shows follow it, it's just too good. It's consistently the edgiest and almost always the funniest. Which is not to say that one of the other shows couldn't make the most of its specific advantages and unseat Happy Endings, but right now, as of March 2012, Happy Endings is clearly the one to beat. At a high school prom, the principal would call Happy Endings up to the stage for the Prom Queen crown without even counting the votes.

So, let's do a little FTW Rerun Playback and go through ABC's four Wednesday comedies in reverse order, assessing their advantages and giving them some key plays that they'll need to overtake the unstoppable comedic force that is Happy Endings.

First rule of being a champion: Know your competition.


Happy Endings S02E17: "The Kerkovich Way"

Last night's brand new episode had a lot of the elements we love about Happy Ending. The small, dense, edgy jokes, both visual and verbal, like tiny Alex eating fatty foods by the fistful and making reference to buying homemade cough drops. It also had the big physical comedy we've grown to expect, like Penny eating a donut off the ground and walking into a street sign. The characters are consistent and distinct, there's not the voice of one writer talking through many characters, but characters who we recognize, even when they're absurdly heightened. Jane's ghost protocol tactics in planting popcorn in Brad's mouth and wrangling false receipts would be too silly on another show. But it's JANE. She crazy like that! We buy it. And the show itself touches deftly on topics its target audience relates to—from timely fads like the food trucks to nostalgia-driven homages to John Hughes movies. It’s a killer combination of sexy and goofy, comfortable and edgy, visual and verbal, all laid over strong structure.


Modern Family

...was last year's comedy darling, so the show is a victim of our high expectations. Even so, fans have been left this season with the sense that the series is coasting on the same old dynamics and repeating patterns. Part of the reason Modern Family seems flat lately is its complete lack of stakes: The Dunphy and Pritchett clans are insulated by their wealth from real problems or consequences. Example: In last night's rerun, “Punkin Chunkin',” Hayley dented the car and the girls struggled to keep it a secret from Claire. And then a chunked punkin' came along and made the dent EVEN bigger! And everyone had a big laugh because they're millionaires and their insurance covers it anyway.

Suggested Comedy Play: One way into good comedy is to give the story the same stakes as good drama. One lost job, one downgraded mansion could rejuvenate a series that is treading water. Especially if it unites the families: the show is always at its best when everybody's under one roof.


Suburgatory

...has a lot going for it. The show is beautifully shot, has a wealth of comic talent, and takes chances. It veers toward the absurd every once in a while, and that’s what makes it special. (In last night's rerun, that would be the weird laser drawings in the crystal paperweights.) Where the show runs into trouble is in getting lost in Tessa's wearisome storylines. Suburgatory's completionist nature of following every weary high school moral Tessa must learn is weirdly at odds with its fun, freewheeling, absurdist tone. While Jane Levy is a joy, her character is joyless, arrogant, and simply not fun to spend time with. She's almost always the condescending straight man to a host of more delightful characters.

Suggested Comedy Play: Loosen Tessa up or give her more time offscreen. Suburgatory is at its best when Tessa nd Cheryl Hines's Dallas Royce connect, or when Tessa and Dahlia confront. Dahlia is criminally underused, as though the writers are afraid our delight in seeing her will overpower the affection we're supposed to feel for Tessa. Suburgatory should enjoy its weirdness a little more—and if could skip wrapping up everything in a neat little bow, that'd kind of be a gift.


The Middle

I am not going to talk about Patricia Heaton. Why would I? Exactly. Why fire cannonballs at a ship if you disagree with one sailor? Separately, though, that wig needs to go. The Middle essentially excised the words "Malcolm in" and swapped a brother for a sister. And the formula works: working class family, no laugh track, lovable characters, and plenty of “shave-and-haircut-two-bits” setup-and-punchline jokes. And yet there's a reason it airs first in the block: It consistently ranks low not only on my point system, but with you guys. What would it take to make The Middle critically catch up with Happy Endings?

Suggested Comedy Play: The one edge The Middle has is relatability. How many of us live with all our childhood friends in three apartments in Chicago? How many of us are trapped in a mansion in Suburgatory or enjoy being as rich as the Pritchetts? The Middle is maybe the poorest family on TV, and that's awesome. That's the best thing about it. The more hilariously pathetic their circumstances, the better the family's bond comes across. And, more importantly, the funnier their plotlines become. Sue is a great illustration of this—simultaneously the most pathetic and cheerful family member. Sue it up, Hecks! Like, if they all ended up in a trailer for next season and Frankie and Hank rekindled their stagnant marriage, that would be ideal.


The Viewer's Choice Blue Ribbon win for 2/27 will return next week along with the new episodes.


Questions:

– Do you agree with my assessment of the shows?

– Is Happy Endings clearly in the lead, or can you make an argument for a different show in the block?

– And if it is, how do the other shows bring up their game to Happy Endings' level?

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