The most famous face on Modern Family (ABC, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) is the perpetually dyspeptic mug of Ed O'Neill. It cannot fail to ring a bell as that of Al Bundy, the crass head of household on Married … With Children. The Bundys stood (or, rather, slouched on an awful ecru couch) for vulgarity in both senses. They were coarse, and they were common. Gleefully farting at the family values of their prime-time neighbors, they presented a vision of domestic life more familiar in American living rooms than on the almighty TV sets therein. O'Neill's presence on Modern Family signals that this highly agreeable new sitcom, upscale though it is, follows Married … With Children's line of pop commentary, singing America as it is, deliberately off-key.
As Jay Pritchett, O'Neill plays the patriarch of a clan that is diverse in the matters of ethnic background and sexual orientation while uniform in its loony angst. In tonight's episode, which documents one day in the life of the Pritchetts, it emerges that Jay has been married to the former Gloria Delgado for six months. (The circumstances of how Jay's first wife left the scene go unexplained in the pilot, but he's so sour that it seems possible he simply grimaced at the woman until she melted.) Played by Sofîa Vergara as a blazing parody of a hot tamale, Gloria rolls her R's with terrific lust. There are those who would suggest that she really ought to be rolling Jay along in a wheelchair. Mistaken for a geriatric mall walker, he hastens to buy himself the youthful togs of a suburban gangsta wannabe.
Jay has two grown kids. His son, Mitch, is gay, and Jay is tolerant of his offspring's sexuality insofar as he is grudgingly willing to put up with it. It has been 12 years since Ellen DeGeneres squatted on the cover of Time to out herself, and TV is now so accepting of homosexuality that Modern Family can tease Mitch's social manners like any other bourgeois pretensions and also treat him as an equal target of mockery.
Mitch does a fine job of embarrassing himself in lecturing an airplane cabin that he and his partner, Cameron, are not "creampuffs." He had misunderstood a comment about their newly adopted Vietnamese daughter, who had been doing adorable things with Hungarian pastry. Cameron speedily makes amends by offering to pay for everyone's in-flight headsets. Emphasis on speedily: The pacing of the show's jokes, which heralds a welcome respect for the quickness of the audience, helps all the humor pop. Of course, good-old dumb physical juxtapositions don't hurt, either. Slight, dry Mitch and tubby, bubbling Cam look like a yuppie Laurel and Hardy.
Mitch's sister is one Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen, who looks a bit like Cheryl Hines and who catches much of the same pitch of comic exasperation that Hines does as Cheryl David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. The primary source of Claire's vexation is her teenage daughter Haley. Cheryl remembers all too clearly the nights she can't entirely remember from her own youth and vigilantly polices Haley's interactions with a mop-topped high-school senior named—the show is in on the joke of the cliché—Dylan.
Claire's husband, Phil, is somewhat useless as a co-defender of Haley's chastity. He is far too busy straining to demonstrate how cool he is to the girl and her two younger siblings. Phil is more desperate to be admired than The Office's Michael Scott, and he outmatches the Juicy Couture mom Amy Poehler played in Mean Girls in his mortifying attempts to sling slang and act hep. This fictional dad is, impossibly, more embarrassing than one's own actual parents. Like so much else on Modern Family, he makes the real-life pathetic look small-screen terrific.