Modern Family's Season 4 Premiere: Comfortable, Not Outstanding

Modern Family S04E01: "Bringing Up Baby"

The word "outstanding" must mean something different to Emmy voters. Earlier this week, Modern Family won the prize for Outstanding Comedy Series, beating out a field of confoundingly pedestrian and/or aging comedies like The Big Bang Theory (pedestrian) and 30 Rock (aging). I didn't even know Curb Your Enthusiasm was still on the air, Veep couldn't keep me interested for twenty minutes, and Girls is an acquired taste. So, I suppose, in that field, Modern Family may be outstanding.

The thing is, in the grander scope of all television, Modern Family struggles to be relevant, let alone outstanding. I used to be a big fan of the show. I would guffaw each week. I championed its first season. But from Season 2 forward, I lost my fervor. Watercooler discussions of the previous night's episode just made me screw up my face while searching for a diplomatic way to say it wasn't that good. I guffawed no longer.

It's not a terrible show. There are plenty of worse things out there. Have you seen Guys With Kids? It's just that you would hope that an outstanding show wouldn't be so middling. It's not really the best at anything anymore. Funnier series? I'll start with Community, Louie, and New Girl (I'd like to include Bob's Burgers and Archer but we'll stay in live-action). Modern Family isn't the funniest mockumentary-style sitcom (that'd be Parks and Recreation). Last season, it wasn't even the funniest series on Wednesday night on its network (I'd give that to Happy Endings but I'm told The Middle has been making strides).

Last night's Season 4 premiere is a perfect indication of the reality of this show. The jokes were stale, the situations tired, and the strange final few minutes were not only bizarre but basically flouted the show's format in favor of a cheesy segue effect. Gloria fretted about telling Jay she's pregnant but we knew from the beginning that Jay wasn't going to be upset about the pregnancy. Because this show always ends with a bow on it and where there's not a chance that Modern Family will be bold enough to have a "very special episode" debating a woman's right to choose, there are no stakes. Without stakes, there is no tension. Without tension, Gloria's plot for most of the episode has no substance.

The episode also dipped into some absurdism and worked blue. When Phil kidnapped Jay and Jay fell into the lake, what kind of advice was, "Punch him in the head!"? That might be funny if people actually did that—for anything. Cam and Mitchell had the least cliche storyline (coping with not being able to adopt a child) but, unfortunately, the resolution was a hug (they hadn't hugged since coming back from the hospital?) and stuffed animals giving each other the business. Both scenarios were contrived, particularly Phil's in respect to how it played into Jay explaining why he's ready to be a new father.

Is Modern Family outstanding? It's not, though Steven Levitan would hold up three years of trophies to beg otherwise. Is it funny? It's more like it's not unfunny. It has its smirkable moments but notice that, this year, it interestingly didn't win the Emmy for Best Writing in a Comedy (that went to Louie). So how does a comedy win best series but not best jokes? You have to wonder how much of it is a lingering mystique. The courtship with Modern Family was so wonderful and whirlwind that, once we married the show, we didn't mind it bombing around in its sweatpants, barely trying, because of the intangibles like character empathy and its warm and fuzzy premise (though I would contend Parenthood is the place to go for that good old familial warmth).

Can Modern Family achieve its former glory? It doesn't matter. We're still going to watch it anyway. But we need to come to terms with it no longer being destination television. It's comfortable television. While I'll still watch Modern Family, we all need to embrace the fact that we're living in a golden age of television where comedies are innovating, experimenting with format and different styles of wit. Next year, how about we look to the bleeding edge of comedies when handing out hardware and let this one eat bon-bons on the couch come award season?

What did you think of Modern Family's Season 4 premiere? Can the show return to its past glory? Or has it never missed a beat?


– Just one more thing. On Sunday, Deadline's Nikki Finke said pretty women aren't funny, referring specifically to Julie Bowen's Emmy win for Best Supporting Actress. I've never agreed with that old chestnut, having known many women both on the screen and in real life who are both gorgeous and funny. The source of the comedy is irrelevant if it still makes you laugh. And I'll add that the funniest lines of this otherwise boring episode came from the women, Bowen (my dear sweet Carol Vessey) delivering the "She's going to get fat" line with as much aplomb as anyone uglier might. Gloria's tirade to Jay about raising her child alone, Claire's "no" to her concoction being a hangover cure, and Lily's first line about naming the kid and kitten Larry all overshadowed the performances by men in the episode, including the not-oft-overshadowed Ty Burrell. Obviously, I'm not the first to say something about Finke's assessment of who's funny, but I would be remiss if I didn't talk about this episode and share that the bright spots of comedy all involved beautiful women.

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