So, I'm definitely enjoying Modern Family, ABC's new mockumentary sitcom about an idiosyncratic American clan. The humor is surprisingly offbeat, most of the performances are wry and smart, and it has genuine heart without being syrupy. And yet watching this week's episode, I was struck by something unpleasant. What was it? To be blunt, I just really hate the kids.
See the problem is that in 1992 a young lad by the name of Macaulay Culkin came and perfected child acting in Home Alone, thereby ruining it for the future. Before him, most kids in TV shows and movies weren't expected to become Major Movie Stars. Sure there have always been child stars (your Shirleys, your Tatums, your Henry Thomases), but something about Culkin's star-making turn -- its sarcasm, its knowingness, its catchphrasery -- just really spoiled the pot and has stoked 20 years' worth of ugly copycatting. The Culkin phenomenon made kids and their parents and their handlers think that America enjoys watching child characters who are wise beyond their years, who are smart alecs and wiseacres. There's been something so forced and precocious about child acting in the post-Culkin years, an era that has given us eerily-adult actingbots like Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin (who was good in Little Miss Sunshine because she was told, or allowed, to be weird and sad, but was terrible in more mainstream fare like No Reservations, which asked her to wearily sigh and say "Men...," shaking her all-knowing head.) Probably to blame more than the kid actors are the script writers, who have figured en masse that snide, precocious kids are a clever little plot device. Kids say the darndest things, right? It's so relatable! Except, no. It's not.
And that's the problem with the kids -- specifically, the Manny and Alex characters -- on Modern Family. They're written to be snotty and unpleasant, instead of possessing the ordinary weirdness that can make real kids actually funny and endearing. Alex is the little rebellious tween who doesn't want to wear dresses but does want to snark on her sister and talk frankly to her fiery Latina step-grandmother about girl-on-girl kissing and how many people Step-Granny has slept with. And I don't know about you, but I don't find that remotely cute or charming (which I think we're supposed to). I just find it kinda gross.
Same goes for Manny the Manchild's philosophical musings and "We'll talk about this next week..." Little Adultisms. Why is the idea of kids knowingly saying things that adults say appealing? To me it's smug and off-putting. The kid characters on otherwise good and clever shows like Modern Family should be messy and weird and individual the way real kids really are, not made to speak in awful one-liners or spout cynical pearls of wisdom. While that may have been kinda funny or interesting a few times in the late '80s or early '90s, by 2009 it's just become lazy and boring and groan-worthy.
I'm trying to think of an actual good example of a child character on television, and I'm coming up short (heh). The little pipsqueak on Two and a Half Men has gone from sarcastic adult in tiny trousers to awkward but still sarcastic teenager, in wildly ungraceful fashion. So he doesn't count. And... uh... Well, actually, I don't really watch any TV shows with kids on them, for this exact reason. A show like Everybody Loves Raymond handled this problem well by mostly not showing the kids. Those writers must have known what I believe to be the truth: Child actors are often annoying, and trying to make child characters "Funny" in a way that keeps up with the adults is repugnant. Best the children, on TV anyway, be seen and not heard. Unless they're weird little ragamuffins who don't make any sense (like most kids.)
What do you think? Am I being a heartless Miss Hannigan? Or do you agree with me that the plague of precocious children, like the ones on Modern Family, are hurting more than they're helping?