With the 2010-2011 television season officially over, I’ll be taking some time over the next week or so to look back on how some of television’s best and worst fared this season.
General thoughts: Like most of you, I really loved Modern Family in its first season. The series took a number of recognizable family sitcom plots and mashed them expertly with the mockumentary style, creating a package that felt familiar, but novel. When Family took home the Emmy award for Outstanding Comedy Series, I wasn’t upset at all. I thought there were better choices that didn’t even get nominated, but this was a series that I could most certainly respect and most of the time, really enjoy.
In my experience, comedies improve fairly substantially in their second season. More so than dramas, comedies take time to find their voice, feel out the capabilities of the actors and their chemistry with one another, and usually, that leads to uneven first seasons and pretty great second seasons. All of the great comedies of the 21st century (Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Party Down, Parks and Recreation, Community, How I Met Your Mother, etc.) had wonderful season seasons. Unfortunately, the second season of Modern Family did not follow this trend at all. I’m not sure if the slight novelty wore off in an instant, the writers started phoning it in or what happened, but season two of Modern Family was wholly uneven and nowhere near as an enjoyable as the first. Instead of diving deeper into the characters and broadening the world of the series, Modern Family embraced its traditional family sitcom roots and relied on one physical comedy gag after another.
Look, I’m not sure that Modern Family has much of a ceiling that it hasn’t reached yet. The series is what it is and there are just slightly better and slightly worse versions of that template. In general, that’s not really a bad thing at all. There are enough other great comedies on television that I don’t need Family to prop up the genre. But when you never take any risks and you never waver from the kinds of jokes that you tell, it makes your failures a lot less sympathetic, at least in my mind. When Community has a messy, middling episode, it’s often because the scope is too large or the series needs a break from its higher-concept fare. Its B-minuses are easier to swallow because there are so many As that have come before and will continue to come in the future. But with Modern Family, nearly episode is a B/B-minus, and over time, that becomes boring and in some instances, appears lazy.
So much of what made the first season of Modern Family enjoyable was the ways the series found to bring everyone together. This is a series that is immensely improved when the whole cast is together and nearly every single strong episode Family has done involves them all together or at least trying to get all together (some variation on that form). That wasn’t as prevalent in season two and I’m really unsure why. At a certain point, maybe you run out of holidays, birthdays and various other parties to have, but I cannot imagine that time comes 35 episodes into your run.
Moreover, so many episodes strained to keep the series’ framework in tact, which not only hampered the series’ ability to be funny, but often short-changed a story or two along the way. In certain weeks, it felt like as if the episode had nothing to do for certain portions of the family, often Jay, Gloria and Manny, but shoved them into rudderless, unfunny plots that took away from other, better stuff elsewhere because well, everybody has to be in the episode! I think everyone on the cast is talented and deserves their respective time on the screen, but stepping away from the very stringent formula would probably do this series some good.
In general, I’m really confused as to why this season of Modern Family was such a creative disappointment. It failed to do any of the things great comedies do in the second season and regularly felt like it was clinging to tropes, plots and returning characters and gags that define a comedy in its sixth or seventh season. The actors are really fantastic and often raise the material to a level higher than it should make in the first place, but I regularly feel like the series’ writers are letting them down.
And yet, perhaps this is just all Modern Family is. It is a family sitcom in the truest sense, a retro throwback with a new coat of paint. This series is never really going to challenge us intellectually or even toy with the conventions of the form, it is just not that kind of series. I never expected it to be the best comedy on television, but perhaps even my tempered expectations were too high. But if you’re relying on some of the things Modern Family relied on so heavily during its second season, the problems aren’t going to go away, they’re probably going to get much, much worse. It won’t impact the series’ popularity at all, but I know I certainly won’t care about the series anymore. And that’s all you folks really care about anyway, right?
One final thing, and it’s positive: The series did do a nice job of weeding out the HORRIBLE voice-over issues it had. Even some of the great first season episodes relied on that device too often and it was especially grating early in season two. However, I did appreciate that the writers figured out that they could still button off episodes with emotional and heartwarming moments without screaming them at the top of their lungs. Characters can give those speeches to other characters instead of preaching them to the audience.
Season grade: B-
Best seven episodes: “Manny Get Your Gun,” “Two Monkeys and a Panda,” “Halloween,” “Someone to Watch Over Lily,” “See You Next Fall,” “Chirp,” “Boys Night”
Worst three episodes: “Our Children, Ourselves,” “Dance Dance Revelation,” “The Old Wagon”
Best performance: Obviously, there are a lot of great choices here, but I really loved Nolan Gould’s work as Luke this season. He didn’t have to carry much narrative weight, but he was ALWAYS hilarious, each and every week.