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.
1 hour ago