Thursday, April 22, 2010

Against Modern Family

A lot of people seem to like the ABC sitcom Modern Family. That's fine, of course. Modern Family is often clever and sometimes very funny. However it suffers by comparison to its obvious forbearer, Arrested Development. Again, that's fine--unlike fans of The Sopranos, fans of Arrested Development never talked themselves into believing that the tiny, elite audience their show captured meant anything to the culture at large.

But my complaint with Modern Family, isn't that it's not AD. It's that the show suffers from two structural problems born of lazyness.

The first is Modern Family's POV. About 80 percent of the show is standard one-camera perspective. The characters go about their business oblivious to the audience. There are occasional static-camera scenes, where we see the characters from the point of view of what could be a hidden camera, almost like ATM security video footage. That's fine, too.

But every so often the fourth wall comes down and the characters go into "confessional" mode. They sit and address the camera directly, as if they were being interviewed by a documentarian. Or they were on Survivor.

Why is this? The show has no reason why the characters would be talking to an interviewer. Instead, the writers default to the confessional mode to get to jokes that would be harder to arrive at without it. And I suppose they assume that, because The Office uses the confessional, every other sitcom in American can, too.

This is laziness, pure and simple. The perspective of a show should fit within a logical, coherent framework. It's difficult--but not impossible--to get to some jokes using nothing by traditional one-camera, 3rd party mode (see 30 Rock). And if you want more options, you can be creative, the way Arrested Development used an actual narrator to grease the rails for the show. Modern Family's use of the confessional camera is both derivative and nonsensical.

The other problem with Modern Family is that, despite its often subversive trappings, it really is a pure-blood sit-com. Seinfeld remade the situation comedy by tossing out all the hugging and learning. (Something other shows--like The Bonnie Hunt Show--had been unsuccessfully trying to do for years.) The traditional situation comedy always has a "moment of shit," where the characters come together to learn some lesson and be momentarily serious about their lives. Good sitcoms managed this architectural feature well; bad sitcoms handled it clunkily. But Sienfeld showed that you didn't have to have it at all. It was hard to do sitcoms in the Seinfeld mode, but post-Seinfeld, that's what lots of writers tried to do.

Arrested Development innovated the form further by establishing a central moral theme--the importance of family--and allowing the show to have the occasional moment of shit, but not in every episode and only when it pertained to show's guiding moral mission. AD wasn't, by any stretch a morality play--it was a very, very funny saga. But the writers did allow themselves to have one area about which it was safe to be half-serious, whenever they wandered into that territory.

There's one more thing: Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and Arrested Development--what I consider the three best sitcoms of the last 20 years, also found ways to create mini story-arcs. The traditional sitcom was always a stand-alone construct, meant to be viewable out of sequence in syndication. More than any other sitcom, Arrested Development found ways to create episodes viewable as standalone pieces while also telling stories on two different levels: most episodes are part of a six-episode mini-arc (George Sr. in Mexico, Mr. F, etc.) and also part of a season-long story arc, where the larger narrative is being driven from Point A to Point Q.

Modern Family is much more traditional. Every episode has a lesson, which is usually hinted at in the first few moments and concluded just before the final commercial break. And the individual episodes serve no larger narrative ambition.

Modern Family is a step backward. An entertaining one much of the time, to be sure. But it is, nonetheless, a retreat to toward the bad old days of conventional television.

5 comments:

The Bitter Script Reader said...

You know, I enjoy MODERN FAMILY for what it is, but the "confessional camera/documentary style" issue that you cite has bugged me from Day One. I still think it's a funny show, but WAY overrrated given how every TV reviewer has tripped over themselves calling it the "best new comedy" and "the funniest show on TV."

I don't want it canceled or anything, but I'd love to see them lose the confessionals. There's no reason for these people to be filmed, unlike THE OFFICE>

scruff said...

Although I agree that MF isn't nearly as good as AD--really, what is?--I'm not sure that's enough reason to be "against" it. I say, just enjoy it for what it is, and let its legacy eventually sort itself out. (Besides, MD actually does do *some* things better than AD; many people want their hearts to be warmed every week, for example.) Sometimes, the need to compare shows shows--something I, too, indulge frequently--can cripple the delight of just being entertained. For MF this happens more with Community than, say, 30 Rock or AD.

You always have great insights. I'd be interested to read more of your opinions about TV--past (Sopranos, Deadwood, Wire, Shield, etc.) and present (Lost, Mad Men, 30 Rock, etc.) Keep up the good work!

Insert Username Here said...

Keep in mind that The Office's use of the documentary camera is nonsensical as well. Only rarely do characters behave as if they're being recorded by documentarians. This show has been on the air for years. Within the context of the show, has this documentary never aired anywhere?

I'd like to see corporate's legal department have a sit down with Michael Scott about all the sexual harassment and labor law violations they saw on the show. Angela cheated on her fiance for months and caught on camera many times. Isn't she at all concerned that Andy will watch the show? Why doesn't anyone on the show mention every seeing this documentary or even express curiosity about when it will be released?

Some scenes seem to have three or four cameras going at once. Do these cameramen never get in the shot? These camera guys and directors and PAs are presumably in the office as much as the Dunder Mifflin workers. Don't you think their lives might intersect a little? Isn't it likely (and interesting) that the camera crew and their subjects would become intimately involved?

Even this idea isn't that revolutionary. Albert Brooks did it in Real Life (1979). It happened for real in The Real World's very first season.

Don't kid yourself. The Office is not a groundbreaking sitcom. It's thoroughly wedded to the genre's cliches.

Mark said...

I am more than willing to grade MF on a curve. At least its better than Parks and Recreation.

Duane said...

You're spending too much time "WATCHING" TV as opposed to watching TV. Stop worrying about story arcs, the 4th wall and confessionals. Laugh at the jokes until SofĂ­a Vergara comes on screen and then fantasize for the next 23 minutes.