How caricature, cliche and Chris Martin ushered in the end of Modern Family

Initially the writing was sparky, but the mockumentary soon started to meander – to the extent of drafting in the Coldplay warbler

As with any family, modern or otherwise, it is amazing how quickly the novelty of spending time with them wears thin. When the US sitcom Modern Family arrived in 2009 – scooping a handful of Emmys and millions of viewers – it felt, if not completely fresh, then at least a novel twist on a tested idea. In the wake of the success of The Office (both the UK and US versions), Modern Family was built around the idea of the mockumentary, with the constantly bickering but ultimately loving family – headed up by patriarch Jay Pritchett and his adult children, Mitchell and Claire, alongside their various partners, kids, stepkids, adopted kids and Jay’s dog Stella – originally supposedly documented by a Dutch film-maker exchange student.

The technique means we get to see awkward and vaguely relatable family tensions played out both in situ and re-told to camera, away from judgement. It’s what allows Mitchell and his husband Cam to work through both the latter’s rocky assimilation into the family, and their own relationship style of opposites attract (Mitchell is a city-dwelling, uptight lawyer, while Cam is a recovering farm boy with a penchant for floral shirts and dressing up as an asexual, classically trained Auguste clown named Fizbo).

In fact, the early seasons worked because of the fun to be had in seeing opposing character types trapped together in the maze of family life, be that Claire’s nerdy daughter Alex constantly trying to escape the perceived stupidity of her siblings, Hayley and Luke, as well as her scene-stealing dad, Phil (“I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud. OMG: oh my God. WTF: Why the face?” he says to camera in season one); or Manny, essentially a decadent, coffee-loving elder statesman trapped in a child’s body, clashing with his straight-talking new stepdad, Jay, while also trying to wrestle himself away from his smothering Colombian mother, Gloria.

However, over 10 seasons, that maze transformed into a prison, with the one-note characters so rigidly set in stone as to become caricature. So Manny is forever old; Luke and Hayley stupid; Claire shrill; Jay a bigot and, worst of all, Gloria loud, brash, beautiful and “funny because she’s foreign”. Attempts at subverting type only lead to increasingly cringe-inducing episode-closing sermons on being “true to yourself”. Where once the writing was sparky enough to constantly remind the viewer of each trope via ludicrous set-ups (season one’s glorious Fizbo episode involving an escaped scorpion, a crossbow and a deflating bouncy castle), by season nine, the rot had fully set in – exemplified by one of its few highlights being notorious humourist Chris Martin dropping by for a supposedly self-aware musical guest appearance. A sitcom no-go Ricky Gervais warned us about in Extras a decade earlier.

It was reported that the show would end with this year’s season 10 finale, but like most family get-togethers, it will now limp on. The key is to know when to make your exit, and that time is now.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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