Why Modern Family Is Good, Not Great

Modern Family has a new episode tonight and got a second-season pickup yesterday (along with fellow ABC comedies Cougar Town and The Middle, but not Better Off Ted, which seems doomed), so although it’s a few days old, I’d like to link to David Loehr’s post on why Modern Family doesn’t grab him, despite the high quality of most of its elements. Not all his thoughts are the same as mine, of course, but his feeling about the show is pretty much mine: it’s a very well-made, well-acted show that doesn’t really feel compelling in any way.

Every era has some comedies that strike me that way, shows that are clearly “quality” shows yet don’t have much of a spark. Will and Grace was like that in its early, acclaimed years. Going back another decade, so was Designing Women, a show where all the elements were in place to make a high-quality show, yet never delivered the laughs or even the interestingly quirky moments of a scrappier comedy. (Was Growing Pains a better-written show than Designing Women or Murphy Brown? Yes, it was.) Sometimes a show can be well done in every respect and yet not have anything that makes it linger in the memory; it’s like one of those pop songs that’s got all the right craftsmanship but just doesn’t have a memorable tune.

I don’t want to sound like I’m hating on Modern Family or questioning anyone who likes it. The question of whether a show’s objectively good qualities (well, good writing, acting, etc. aren’t completely objective, but they’re not completely subjective either) add up to more or less than the sum of their parts is one whose answer differs from person to person. It’s a real thing — we have all seen things that are good in every detail but don’t add up to much — but it’s very subjective.

I think the best comparison for MF that I’ve heard, from a couple of people including Justin, is Wings. Especially since both its creators, Chris Lloyd and Steven Levitan, were longtime Wings writers. There was a show whose writing had all the “quality” benchmarks in place, assembled an excellent cast (including Tim Daly, Steven Weber, Tony Shalhoub and Thomas Hayden Church), and was almost always enjoyable to watch, just as Modern Family is — for me — usually enjoyable. But it never added up to more than a pleasantly enjoyable show, easy to watch and forget. The characters were all recognizable as stock types delivering their well-written stock lines in stories that were well-crafted but unsurprising. Wings appeared at a time when there were lots of really good, surprising comedies on the networks, so it was generally regarded as a middle-of-the-pack show. If it came back as a new show today, it might be regarded differently, but it might not deserve it, even now.