Sunday, March 30, 2014

Modern Family Values

I've come to enjoy the situation comedy Modern Family.

At one level, the show is very traditionalist. The extended family are clearly upper middle class folk with upper middle class mores. The husbands bring home the bacon, the wives stay home to raise the kids. Except that one of the moms is one of two dads and another of the moms is a hot "trophy wife," younger than her husband's oldest daughter, So, to some extent, the very family values show turns the traditional family values schtick on its head.

If you've missed it up until now, the show revolves around the extended family of paterfamilias Jay Pritchett. Jay is married to Colombian bombshell Gloria, thus becoming step-father to young but older than his age Manny Delgado. Jay and Gloria have now had a son together, Joe. Jay's daughter Claire is married to Phil Dunphy, and they have three children: daughters Haley and Alex and son Luke. Jay's older son, Mitchell, lives with his same sex partner Cam, and they are adoptive parents to Vietnamese orphan Lily.

Even some of the non-traditional aspects of the extended family are given odd twists. Although Jay is married to a much younger woman, he is not the person who walked out on his first marriage to Claire and Mitchell's mother. She abandoned Jay to go and "find herself." And although there is at least one episode where Claire second guesses her choice to be a stay at home mom (she eventually takes a job with her father's company), Cam and Mitchell also provide opportunities to examine that choice without the gender blinkers.

The societal shift is not ignored or treated as a done deal by any means. Jay's discomfort with his Mitchell's sexuality is treated lightly but honestly, particularly in one episode where he bonds with Cam's father who has the same discomfort. For both fathers, the realization that times have changed leaves them feeling disconnected, but it is equally clear that they love their sons and want them to be happy.

The main and lasting criticism of the show, and the one with the most legs, is that all the wives are stay at home moms, or at least were initially. In this respect, although the show doesn't play the silly "who's in what role" game with Cam and Mitchell, Cam was the stay at home parent. Over the past couple of seasons, Cam and Claire worked together to flip a house, Cam landed a high school football coaching job and Claire, as mentioned above, is being positioned to take over her father's business. At the same time, Gloria periodically expresses concern that other members of the family look down on her for not having a job outside the home. How much of this is the natural evolution of the show and how much a response to criticism is anyone's guess.

The show isn't perfect by any means. The entire Pritchett clan with its many offshoots is more one percent than 99 percent. It is a family of white privilege. But then, I don't expect deep sociopolitical commentary in a sitcom - particularly an American sitcom. For an American sitcom, it is probably a more insightful commentary on American culture than anything not produced by Norman Lear.

Oh, and it's usually pretty funny.

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