In the original pilot script for Modern Family, the creators included a subplot explaining why the show’s three wacky families were being filmed documentary-style. The idea was that the interconnected families were the subject of a movie being made by a Dutch exchange student; he was going to have a backstory and fall in love with one of the regulars. But by the time the show made it to air, the documentary filmmaker was nowhere to be seen, and as Modern Family has grown into the biggest hit comedy of the season, the characters have never shown any awareness that they’re being filmed. Co-creator Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!) made it official in an interview with the Television Critics Association, saying that the presence of the documentarian “felt like an appendage, like we didn’t need it.” Modern Family is now a show that uses documentary film techniques but never bothers to explain why; that’s why Levitan calls it “a family show done documentary-style.”
The mock-documentary is a staple of modern U.S. and British comedy, whether it’s the early movies of Albert Brooks, films like This Is Spinal Tap, or both versions of The Office. But in most of those projects, there’s been some attempt to justify the style of shooting and to follow some of the rules of a real documentary. The documentarian was an onscreen character in Spinal Tap, and on the original version of The Office, the show did an episode in which the documentary actually was released (providing new problems for the characters). On the U.S. Office, people mention the presence of the camera, look in its direction, and even try to avoid being filmed at tense moments. There’s none of that on Modern Family, where the characters never seem to know they’re being filmed, and where Levitan has said he doesn’t want to imitate “families who let cameras in their houses in real life. I just can’t stand those shows.”
Even the “talking head” segments, where characters are interviewed about what’s going on in their lives, are done without any indication of who they’re talking to. On The Office, characters answer questions and even say things like “shut up” to the off-screen interviewer, but on Modern Family, the same scenes are almost like dream sequences where the stars express their feelings to no one in particular. Some people have complained about the refusal to justify the format; New Jersey Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall wrote that the show needs to make up its mind whether the talking heads are real or fantasy, because “the current approach is just distracting.” But Levitan has said the documentary is “just our style of storytelling,” a device to reveal characters’ feelings.
It’s a device that was important enough to the creators that they refused to give it up; Levitan told Movieline’s Julie Miller that he took the show to ABC because NBC “didn’t want another mockumentary.” It could be that even after they dropped the framing device, the writers still need this shooting style to disguise the show’s basically traditional sitcom writing. Many of the jokes are in a very familiar set-up-punchline style, quite similar to the creators’ previous show, the Kelsey Grammer-Patricia Heaton flop Back to You. A plot in a recent episode had would-be cool dad Phil (Ty Burrell) growing a hideous mustache and then getting trapped in an outhouse; if there were a studio audience and four cameras, such stories might be dismissed as familiar sitcom fare.
The documentary approach creates a new rhythm for what would otherwise be predictable jokes; series director Jason Winer told the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik that unlike a regular sitcom “where you would be right up in the actors’ faces with the lenses,” his techniques “make the dialogue feel like it’s captured accidentally and spontaneously.” Ed O’Neill’s character often has speeches that sum up the moral of an episode (“when all is said and done, 90 per cent of being a dad is just showing up”), just like the sitcom dads he satirized on Married…With Children. But in a talking-head sequence, bits like that are, in Levitan’s words, “not quite so syrupy.”
So although critics like Sepinwall have warned that the documentary bits don’t “make sense in the context of the events happening around them,” Modern Family will keep doing them without any explanation. That’s because, as Winer told Zurawik, the “hip new format” disguises the fact that “the emotion of the series is a throwback.” When you can have your cake and eat it too, the format doesn’t need to make sense.