2 Oct 2010: US mock doc with more than a nod to The Office grabbed a stack of Emmys. But, as season two airs on Sky1, can it really go another 24 episodes without a ‘clonker’?
In the build-up to this year’s Emmy Awards, most people would have bet on Glee or 30 Rock to win best comedy series. The smart money, however, was always on Modern Family. In the end, the show won three Emmys to Glee’s two and 30 Rock’s big fat zero. Inspired by This Is Spinal Tap and The Office (the original British version, not the US remake), Modern Family is quite possibly the best family comedy on television. It bucks the recent trend of placing TV shows in the workplace – from Mad Men to 30 Rock and on to Nurse Jackie – by following the lives of three odd, affluent, interconnected families living in the suburbs.
The premise of the series is simple: the families are being filmed for a documentary that will appear on Dutch television. This mockumentary style neatly allows the audience to see each character both in situ with their families and being interviewed alone on a sofa. Phil (Ty Burrell) is married to Claire (Julie Bowen); they have three kids together. At the start of season one, broadcast on Sky1 this time last year, Phil eagerly introduces himself to the interviewer as the cool dad. He’s clearly anything but. “I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: Laugh out loud. OMG: Oh my God. WTF: Why the face?” He also knows the moves from High School Musical.
Claire, meanwhile, has given in to her husband’s determination to relate to his kids by being “cool”, and seems to have all but given up on one daughter: “If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half-naked, I’ve done my job.”
According to Bowen, it’s a bit like watching The Office when it was first broadcast in 2001: “You’d sit there thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I the only person who heard that? Am I the only person who saw that?'”
Living in a fabulous house close to Phil and Claire are Jay (Ed O’Neill – AKA Al Bundy from 80s classic Married With Children) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who play an older rich guy and his younger trophy wife. Gloria’s teenage son is overweight, oversensitive and misunderstood; Vergara does a great caricature of the hot Hispanic mother, smothering him while wishing he’d toughen up.
‘Audiences are definitely more open to a gay couple in a sitcom than they were 10 years ago’ Steve Levitan, co-creator
The final couple, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet, who picked up an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy series) are a gay couple who have adopted a baby from Vietnam. When Cameron puts on weight, he blames it on nesting instincts; Mitchell’s response is to descend into deeper neurosis.
Although Modern Family clearly has comedy debts galore – other than The Office and Spinal Tap, it also owes something to Arrested Development and even The Royle Family – it is perhaps unique in its refusal to ask the audience to judge its characters. Not Phil for refusing to accept middle age nor Jay – who, it turns out, is Claire and Mitchell’s dad – for falling in love with a younger woman. It’s telling that Mitchell and Cameron aren’t pitched as the “token gay couple”, but just one of a trio of families.
Steve Levitan, who co-created Modern Family with Christopher Lloyd (though he probably wants to forget coming up with Pamela Anderson’s bookstore sitcom, Stacked), thinks people might become less judgmental by watching his show. “Audiences are definitely more open to a gay couple in a sitcom than they perhaps were 10 years ago,” he says. “I hope shows like Will & Grace or Modern Family will encourage people to be more open-minded to other people’s lifestyles.”
Levitan, who cut his teeth as a writer and producer on The Larry Sanders Show and Frasier, says that he and Lloyd sat around two summers ago trying to find a fresh way of doing a family show. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the right formula, the right mix of characters, the right dynamics. We didn’t stop until we knew you could take any two of the characters, put them in a room and understand why that would be funny. With adult siblings you can have a group of people who are different and yet stuck together. It seemed a good place to start.”
Is he anxious about season two after that Emmy haul for the first? “It’s a little daunting. Our big goal is not to have a clonker episode. You guys only do around six episodes per season; we are going to do 24. That’s four years’ worth in one go. It’s a long season.”
‘I stood near Tina Fey at an awards show and I was just gasping because she’d said something about our show being very good. She knows who I am!’ Julie Bowen
If Levitan talks like the big, serious executive producer he is, then Julie Bowen brings her own brand of silliness to the mix. When The Guide catches up with her in LA, it’s 6am her time but she insists that’s late for her.
“I was up at 4am because someone hacked into my email account,” she says. “Omigod. I had to change all my bank accounts. But I’m fine now.” She is slightly breathless, hyper and very keen to share her “incredible” and “amazing” experience on Modern Family. It all sounds a bit … perfect. “I know! I know! You probably want to hear about catty backstabbing; perhaps come back and talk to me in season three.”
Although she’s no newcomer to TV – she’s been in ER, Lost, Weeds and Boston Legal – Bowen is in love with Modern Family. Big time. “Oh yes! I was almost nine months pregnant with twins when I auditioned for the pilot. They called me in several times and kept eyeballing my belly. Finally they decided to let me audition and shot around my bump. Although I was about to give birth, I had to go in there and fight for the job just like anyone else.”
Bowen says that it’s sometimes hard to figure out the tone of a pilot script. Or the script will be great, but you know it’ll be diluted by the time it reaches the screen. “I got to the scene where Phil and Claire are trying to figure out the shooting of their son Luke. He shot his sister with a toy gun and Phil has promised Claire that if Luke shoots directly at someone, then Phil will in turn shoot at him with the toy gun. Yet they just can’t seem to squeeze it into their busy schedules … It’s such a crazy scene that I just knew even a monkey could direct it and not mess it up.”
Although Bowen’s portrayal of Claire is perfectly judged, she insists on praising Ty Burrell and Eric Stonestreet for their improvisation skills. “I am more than a little intimidated,” she says. “The best I can sometimes do is field the ball; 90% of acting is reacting, so I stick to that.” Does she feel much responsibility to do the words justice? “Yeeees! I am more than a little terrified every time I get the scripts. I just want to do them service!”
The pressure must be immense. During its first season, Time magazine declared Modern Family to be the second-best American TV series, behind Mad Men and ahead of Breaking Bad. The New York Times called it the “best new half-hour of funny TV in a season rife with half-hours of funny TV”. “I worship at the altar of Tina Fey,” Bowen salivates. “I stood near her at an awards show and I was just gasping because she’d said something in the press about our show being very good. She knows who I am!”
Season two might have a lot to live up to, then, but Bowen’s having too much fun to worry. “Sometimes I think I have too much fun. Usually we’ll do a scene a few times, Ty will start throwing out his ideas and I’ll be lying on the ground laughing.” She giggles and then pulls herself together: “Which is not very helpful to anyone.”