The Most Underappreciated Character on Modern Family Is Also the Best

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 1 2012 4:40 PM

Character Studies: Claire from Modern Family

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Actress Julie Bowen of Modern Family.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

On a recent episode of Modern Family, we discovered how put-upon mother Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) copes with the stress of raising three kids and one buffoonish husband. There’s no book club or Zumba classes. Instead Claire’s been secretly heading to the firing range.

This refreshing revelation came after her same-age stepmother Gloria Pritchett (Sofía Vergara) followed Claire to what she thought was a yoga class. Then Claire confessed that her “sacred space” involves less breathing and more shooting. “I live with four teenagers. You live with two adults,” Claire quips, explaining why she needs to blow off steam.

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Claire is not, I suspect, the first pick for favorite character among most Modern Family viewers. Hot and hilarious Gloria, her precocious son Manny (Rico Rodriguez), or lovable gay couple Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) get the bigger laughs and the more agreeable personalities.

But I’ve always been a fan of Claire. Detractors might say she’s a nag with her kids and her sweet though often clueless husband Phil (Ty Burrell). I say they usually deserve it, especially her hubbie, at whom Claire lobs frequent, exasperated cries of “Phil!” Besides, nagging is just asking someone to do a chore he thinks he’s entitled not to do.

The Pritchett side of Modern Family—Claire, Mitchell, their dad Jay (Ed O’Neill)—tend toward cynicism and competition (see “Pumpkin Chunkin”); the writers like to contrast them with the show’s more laidback characters. As Cam told Gloria before the latter chased Claire to the firing range, “She’s a Pritchett. You got to break through those walls.”

Once you do, you see that Claire is all heart behind her precise exterior. And Bowen combines real comic agility with a compassionate screen presence to keep the character from becoming a mere stereotype, the wet blanket mother and wife. The show’s writers, meanwhile, are getting better at finding storylines that explore her complexities.

Take Claire’s recent dive into politics. After a town council member flouted council policy, refusing the petition signatures Claire helped collect for a new stop sign, Claire decided to run for his seat. Then, ahead of a televised debate, a newspaper poll referred to her as “angry and unlikeable.” Faced with how to respond, Claire chose to follow the advice of her daughter Alex. “[Unlikeable]’s just the word men use for powerful women because they feel threatened,” Alex, played by Ariel Winter, said. “Forget everything else and be proud and powerful.”

And she was. That is until Phil decided to step in and “help” her explain why he was questioned by police after being found naked in a stranger’s hotel room. (This happened in a great episode from last season; long story short, he thought it was his and Claire’s room.) Phil’s mangled explanation then became an auto-tuned viral video, of course. Still, I’m hoping Claire manages to defeat the incumbent anyway. Perhaps then she could redirect some of that Pritchett organizational power—not to mention that aggression she’s venting at the firing range—and put it to work for her town.

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Anna Weaver is a writer living in the Seattle area. She is originally from Kailua, Hawaii.