This week, Modern Family (ABC, Wednesdays at 9 p.m.) will end its third season at No. 17 in the Nielsen ratings. Among comedies, only the harmless nerd humor of The Big Bang Theory and the skeevy shenanigans of Two and a Half Men drew a bigger audience than did these explorations of parenting and adult childishness, so a diverse bunch of superlatives accrue to the show. It's the top family sitcom, the top single-camera sitcom, and the most likely place for a broad audience to encounter fine writing. The experience of last week's network upfronts suggested that a handful of producers will be attempting to imitate Modern Family this fall. The experience of the show itself suggests that its voice is inimitable—cold-witted but warm-hearted, agreeably wised-up about genre convention but resistant to absurdist smart-aleckness. When Modern Family is on its game, it swerves from loud clowning to subtlety with impeccable craftiness.
At the outset of the series, Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill)—with his sour aura, his bombshell trophy wife, his grudging tolerance for contemporary life—looked like little more than an entertaining stock figure: a juicy burgher steeling himself for grouchy senior-citizenry. He has since developed into a proper paterfamilias. I'm calculating this observation according to the peculiar laws of gravitas of this goofball universe. Sofia Vergara, playing Jay's second wife, serves up an ironic hot tamale, frequently delivering her performance between inverted commas and thus leading most of her lines with an inverted exclamation point. But in his dealings with her and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez, exhibiting the theatrical precocity of a pee-wee stand-up comic), Jay represents a harrumphing voice of reason, sometimes stingy with affection but always generous with love.
Dealing with his own two kids, Jay has a way of letting reason fly out the window in the most delightful way. An April episode found him unable to extricate himself from a dinner where the guests included his tightly wound son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); Mitchell's wonderfully unwound partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet); and—here was the repelling magnet—Cameron's father, Merle (Barry Corbin).
The tension concerned Jay's boiling annoyance that Merle regarded Mitchell as the subordinate partner in the relationship, what guys their age would tend to think of as the "wife." Merle expressed this belief most hilariously when he handed the couple a pair of wristwatches: a chunky chronometer for his own son and a matching ladies' number for Mitchell. The sons, despite themselves, were drawn into the shaded squabbling that followed—a clever inversion of my-dad-is-tougher-is-tougher-than-your-dad action. With a light touch, the plotline wondered about filial devotion, the play of gender roles in same-sex relationships, and the ways in which parents will never grow up.
The least grown-up adult on Modern Family remains Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), the husband of Jay's daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) and the father of her three kids. In his unfortunate and unfortunately familiar quest to convince his kids to think he's cool, Phil represents one of the dopiest dopey dads in a genre littered with them. Perhaps the series' most frequent victim of physical comedy and PG-gross-out gags—with this season bringing insults to his testicles, his gastrointestinal tract, and his inner ear—he also perpetrates, wittingly and otherwise, a plurality of the show’s purely verbal gags. Consider the recent moment in which Claire was seized by mirth at another man's joke, Phil was seized by jealousy, and the writers’ room seized upon Abbott and Costello:
Phil: You laughed like it was "Who's On First?"!
Phil (deadpan): He's on second. Don't try to cheer me up.
Like The Office and Parks and Recreation, Modern Family employs a mockumentary format, with the characters often trailed by a greedy faux-verité lens and sometimes addressing the camera as if an interviewer lurks earnestly behind it. Like its predecessors, this show exploits the device without developing the conceit or imposing the limitations that should follow logically from it—and that's fine. The format is now simply part of the language of television, a natural part of the artifice, and this particular show uses it to achieve a particular intimacy between people on opposite sides of the screen. Treating the fourth wall as a receptacle for raised eyebrows and winks and withering glances that play like dry asides, the characters ask for a bit of complicity, plead wryly for some sympathy, tell us to get a load of this and that. Inviting compassion and commiseration, they tell us we're all in the Family.