Modern Family: Progress in writing
Sitcoms are more than a bit of entertainment and the writing tells it
Diclaimer: I’m not a comedy writer and I’m always learning about forms of writing I know little about. The below is just a comment on something I’ve found interesting as a writer.
We’ve been watching Modern Family on Disney+. Less so the dog. It’s our go-to ‘chuck something on’ light-relief and binge content in a world of social networks and fairly saddening news cycles. (Other things we’ve liked: Community and Superstore).
Modern Family’s easy nature doesn’t lessen its watchability. We enjoy it, although like any long-running series - it ran for 11 years from 2009 - there are subtle and necessary changes in the comedy and writing as the show progresses.
Eleven years is a significant amount of time for anyone, and culturally it brings sizeable Change; capital c. Consider musical genres, or things like the presidencies of Joe Biden via Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Eleven years ago the London Olympics was two years away, and the thought of a worldwide pandemic was absent in the minds of all but the most dystopian-prepared people; now proven right.
But you get the point, 11 years isn’t small. So much changes, and a good sitcom can help you chart that.
So back to Modern Family, where the ‘modern’ appears the work in progress it should be. The format focuses on an extended family including a ‘typical suburban’ family with three kids, a gay couple (uncles) with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, and a grandad / father with a younger Colombian wife who has a 9-ish years old aged son from a previous marriage.
Much of the early writing and comedy hangs on the usual madcap goings on of situations to be navigated as in any sitcom. But there’s also comedy made of comments by Jay (the eldest family member) pushing toxic masculinity. There’s the playing on homosexual stereotypes and xenophobic comments and sentiments. The specific casting of the family’s children is somewhat ‘typical’ too, yet sometimes becomes awkwardly derogatory:
Manny (9?) is too mature
Hayley (15?), is popular - and oddly sexualised when she reaches college age.
Alex (13?), is a geek / nerd with no life
Luke (9?), is odd / not very smart.
Thankfully, lots of these narratives and those of the adults appear to shift and re-set. By series 5, which aired between 2013 and 2014, the comedy adapts to a more tolerant and supportive / empowering slant - focusing on hidden talents or changes in characters that add a warmth to them. Obviously I don’t know how far ahead the character arcs were planned, but the initial shift in writing feels right for the previous decade. One where conversations of inclusiveness appeared more culturally empowered, if far from complete.
We’ve still three seasons of Modern Family left to go. It ended in 2020, and I’m looking forward to the end-to-end development of the show, characters and writing. Good ‘chuck something on’ light-relief and binge content is precious.
Every show or bit of art has its day though. I think it’s fair to say writers are influenced by their own ‘modern’ culture references, which can then be shown back to audiences with a little twist. I am for sure. Mavericks can and do go ambitiously off-piste with things of course.
But there’s still an important role for writers and producers of somewhat ‘reflective’ art. Not merely to repackage and re-spin accepted norms, but also to take note of progress and positive shifts, amplifying those and taking a story - even a situational comedy - on a journey of development towards its natural end point.
Hope you’re enjoying something fun.