Back to the start: Modern Family S1 Ep1

Three households, one family

The Pritchett-Dunphy-Tuckers represent three branches of the same family spanning three generations. Modern Family shares the comedy trials and tribulations of a ‘normal’ family unit, an American-Colombian second marriage and a same-sex couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter. They may be anything but traditional but they’re unmistakably one big family.

Series

Modern Family, 120 episodes (as of July 2014), 2009-current.

An unexpected new arrival brings the family together (Image: ABC)

An unexpected new arrival brings the family together (Image: ABC)

Plot

Phil: I know all the dances to High Street Musical.

Meet the Dunphys. Realtor Phil (Ty Burrell) is your typical thinks-he’s-cool-but-isn’t-really dad, who struggles to bring himself to punish his youngest child, the slightly dopey and accident-prone Luke (Nolan Gould). Housewife Claire (Julie Bowen) struggles to come to terms with her mirror image eldest daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) bringing a boyfriend home for the first time. In the middle is second daughter Alex (Ariel Winter), the studious middle child.

Meet the Pritchetts. Jay (Ed O’Neill) is father Claire to and Mitchell. He recently married his second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), a glamorous Colombian divorcee several years his junior, and suffers a minor crisis when he is mistaken for her father. Gloria’s son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) is unselfconscious, optimistic and a hopeless romantic, whose poetic approach to a girl five years his senior is rebuffed.

Meet the Tucker-Pritchetts. Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), partners for five years, are returning from Vietnam where they have adopted an infant girl, Lily. Mitch is uptight, quiet and mostly calm, but prone to speechifying when he feels passionate or offended. Cam is the yin to his yang: outgoing, dramatic and flamboyant. Where Mitch is reluctant to tell his family about Lily, Cam organises a big family dinner and introduces Lily to the strains of Circle of Life, complete with theatrical costume and lighting.

Tensions initially run high after Jay verbalises his ongoing discomfort with Mitch and Cam’s relationship and gay adoption. However, the family patriarch recognises and accepts his own shortcomings and gladly welcomes Lily as the latest addition to the clan.

The shape of things to come

Returning to the pilot after five seasons watching the show, my first impression was of an episode that was slightly flat and pedestrian by Modern Family‘s hyperactive, gag-a-minute standards. But, on reflection, this is a remarkable half-hour of television. It introduces us to all ten principal cast members (and Lily) – how many sitcoms have more than five or six main characters? – giving everyone bar Alex a significant beat of their own (and even then she’s present in three separate storylines), while firing verbal and sight gags at the viewer from all directions.

More than anything, though, the pilot instantly achieves a genuine sense of pathos. This is no traditional sitcom family where everything’s all smiles and comic misunderstandings. Modern Family has received much critical praise over the years for its realistic portrayal of family and for giving us a gay couple who are simultaneously a collection of stereotypes and yet convincingly real. (Reflecting the real world legalisation of gay marriage across several states, Mitch and Cam’s proposal and wedding forms a key arc in season five.)

Claire: One minute you’re just friends watching Falcon Crest and the next you’re lying underneath the air hockey table with your bra in your pockets.

Here Jay confronts his and his generation’s prejudices about gay relationships and Manny’s less-than-macho approach to love. Phil, who sees his role in life to be the cool, fun dad who is his kids’ best friend, struggles to discipline Luke. Mitch confesses how hard it is to live with his father’s own discomfort. Claire wears the trousers in the Dunphy household not because she’s a control freak (although she is) but because she doesn’t want her daughters making the same mistakes she did. These are all situations which are more than just a rich seam of comedy to be mined – they’re universal themes that we can empathise with.

If the characters seem less fully formed here, that’s largely a matter of time constraints. Everyone has a specific facet on show here, from Gloria’s fiery temper to Alex’s bookishness and, looking back, it’s apparent that the writers had the characters pretty well worked out right from the start. There’s nothing here that jars at second viewing or makes you think that character X underwent a significant change after viewer focus groups – they have all simply expanded and grown from their first appearances here.

In addition to character traits, there’s a lot of background setting up future stories too. A few drop-ins from this pilot:

  • The focus is squarely on the central characters, but we are also introduced to Haley’s boyfriend Dylan (Reid Ewing), by far the most frequently seen secondary character (24 appearances to date). Mitch and Cam’s friends Pepper and Longinus are also name-checked but not seen here.
  • Timelines are rapidly established here. Mitch and Cam have been together for five years. Phil and Claire have been married for 16 years, Jay and Gloria just six months. Manny’s 11, Haley’s 15 and boyfriend Dylan is a senior.
  • Claire is presented as having been a tearaway teenager, something which the series refers back to only occasionally. In addition to the air hockey table incident, she also talks about not wanting Haley to wake up half-naked on a beach in Florida, an incident which clearly refers to her younger self.
  • It’s established that Jay runs his own business, Gloria occasionally struggles with the vagaries of the English language and (in the coda) that Phil has a trampoline in the Dunphys’ garden, all of which later become repeating features of several episodes.

Finally, the show rolls out a succession of distinctive mockumentary-style storytelling devices, from the use of steadycam filming and more formal soundbites to camera to dashboard-mounted cameras for in-car scenes and characters occasionally throwing side-long glances at the camera in moments of self-consciousness, as Phil does in the garden as he attempts to punish Luke.

Overall, this is an extremely strong pilot for a popular and multi-award winning show that established its identity immediately and continues to stand up well five years later.

Rating: 9/10

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