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'Family' Not Just Modern but Smartly So

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Modern Family" is cause not just for cheer but also for outright jubilation. The writers and producers of the domestic sitcom, premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC, have found sharp new angles for tales of the great American family, and they juxtapose them in smart, savory ways.

Superficially the story of three couples told as if all were the subjects of a reality show, "Modern Family" reveals the bold extent of its modernity about halfway through the premiere; the households are connected in an intriguing and promising way that should not be revealed in advance, even though it's essential to the premise. Confused? Well of course! But it's worth tuning in just to find out who's whose, and to discover there's much more than that to appreciate.

Ed O'Neill, for years the put-upon pop of "Married . . . With Children" on Fox, shows much more subtlety and appeal here as Jay Pritchett, an American man who has reached middle age, jumped into the crisis with both feet and decided to seek out a younger mate rather than buy a bright red convertible.

Such midlife symptoms might be cliches, but they still happen. Viewers will be glad Jay chose the beautiful woman (Sofia Vergara) instead of the car; there are many more story possibilities. Unlike his previous sitcom role, O'Neill has to do more on this show than bray, moan and stick his hand down his pants. Now playing an actual character, he proves he can do that wickedly well.

Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), another couple in the wheel, are trying to keep their marriage fresh after 16 years, and for Phil that means relating to "the young" on what he imagines to be their level -- which they find, naturally, to be old hat and hokey (not that any of them would say "hokey" on a normal day). Phil tosses in as many uses of "cool" and "awesome" as possible and addresses a teenage son as "dude."

Naturally there's considerable pathos inherent in this situation, but writer Dan O'Shannon and director Jason Winer keep it under control and prevent Phil from becoming a garishly embarrassing sap.

Of the three couples, the gay one is of course at the greatest risk of being stereotyped and even ridiculed: Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are, in physical terms, a gay Laurel and Hardy, though neither could be called the straight man.

Perhaps one of the toughest things about portraying gay characters in a series like this used to be the risk of making them so exemplary that they became shriekingly dull. The creators of "Modern Family" make this couple believably flawed but in ways not connected to their sexuality. Stereotypes are mocked rather than promulgated.

(One odd little thing about the couple: Their names suggest a producer is a big fan of the late actor Cameron Mitchell and so paid this unusual homage -- or perhaps the reference is to John Cameron Mitchell, the offbeat auteur behind "Hedwig and the Angry Inch.")

"Modern Family" belongs to the still-new genre going by the name of mockumentary. Now and then, characters talk to the camera, or someone behind it, or have little discussions about how the filming is coming along. It's used not to excess but to success, which is just what this wise, clever and bighearted comedy ought to be.

Modern Family (30 minutes) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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