Fall is the most highly anticipated season for television series, and this year’s Emmy Awards ceremony holds the promise of living up to the anticipation.
One nominated show stands out. As ABC’s highly successful sitcom Modern Family enters its seventh season on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 9 p.m., will it win the award for Outstanding Comedy Series a sixth time?
Modern Family has been nominated for 73 Emmys and won 21, taking home the top comedy prize every season it has been on the air. In the last five years it has beat out acclaimed series such as 30 Rock, The Office, Glee and The Big Bang Theory. This year it is up against past contenders Parks and Recreation (NBC), Louie (FX), Silicon Valley (HBO) and Veep (HBO), as well as new streaming favorites Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) and Transparent (Amazon).
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says that Modern Family fills a niche as one of the few situational family comedies on TV. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were far more of these shows on the air.
“We don’t see families like this anymore on TV. When we do see families on TV, they’re dysfunctional,” Thompson said. “This family is unusually kind-hearted for what we’re used to seeing right now.”
Unlike many of the other shows nominated this year, Modern Family doesn’t rely on satire or parodies of cultural references. It doesn’t rely on prototype characters either. Rather, it’s the construction and juxtaposition of the characters themselves that provides the comedy in any given situation.
The humor of characters and relationships is also highlighted in other Emmy-nominated comedies. Transparent relies on the meat of characters and fleshing out the complexities of relationships. So does the dark humor of Louie.
But the laughs on those shows are mainly garnered from satire and current cultural references. The effort involved in such witty narratives is definitely Emmy-worthy. It takes a lot of talent to keep spinning gold from fleeting popular cultural references or political scandals.
Modern Family doesn’t use such active, constructed comedy. Instead, it finds its comedic fodder in the quirks and flaws of well-constructed characters and their interactions.
It’s Phil’s goofy, wanna-be cool attitude contrasted with Claire’s Type A suburban mom. It’s Cam’s loving, flamboyant approach contrasted with Mitch’s detail-oriented perfection. It’s not just about the interactions that occur within the small nuclear families, but also about the interactions between extended family members: father and son-in-law, daughter and stepmother, cousin and cousin.
In some sense, this presents less of a challenge for the Modern Family team. A more traditional approach like this one has to be done well to be funny; Modern Family requires meticulous writing and good banter. But Modern Family’s writers probably aren’t forced to work as hard to create drama within the comedy, as accomplished by the writers of more in-depth, complex shows like Transparent. If dramatic effort counts in the race for Outstanding Comedy Series, maybe Modern Family won’t stand up to its competition this year.
However, what we still like about Modern Family’s characters is that we see in them what we see in ourselves or in any family. The relatability factor still goes a long way in the success of situational comedies. Just take a look back at the huge TV audiences for shows like Friends, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls. People like shows that remind them of themselves. There’s a whole lot of funny involved in the contrasting personalities of normal couples, clumsy kids and suburban politics.
Regardless of what happens this year, Thompson believes Modern Family deserves the accolades it has received so far. “This show is exquisitely written and acted,” he said. “What was the norm has now become avant-garde, and I think they’re being rewarded for their uniqueness.”
Genelle Levy is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University.