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The myth of the American family with its 2.3 children, soccer practice and minivans isn’t exactly edge of your seat television entertainment, but it’s what a lot of people think is normal.
“Modern Family” is undoubtedly unappetizing to those folks. Cold water splashed in the face of a myth is uncomfortably eye opening to the Value’s Patrol and their holy mission to preserve the idealized American family and the sanctity of marriage.
Television has been a big part in perpetuating the myth since the beginning. We had the Cleavers in the 1950s: all white bread, stay-at-home, pearl bedecked Mom and pipe-smoking Dad, and childhood crises of lost lunch money or stray puppies. Thankfully that myth is now about as common as calling your youngest son “the Beaver.”
TV brought us the Huxatable family in the 1980s, an average family of color who resided in a million-dollar Brooklyn brownstone and a true enough depiction for a small percentage of the population.
The 1990s fogged those rose-colored lenses by injecting a bit of gritty, middle-class realism with the advent of “Roseanne,” but still, not much in the way of divorce or any especially unsanctioned behavior in the Connor family.
It took 60 years to bring on the real deal in American family values, and it’s about time. “Modern Family” hit the waves with an honest depiction of 21st century American family life, and it’s brilliant.
Los Angeles suburbs are home to the Pritchett household, the Dunphy household and the Pritchett/Tucker household. The extended family is the progeny of patriarch Jay Pritchett, played by Ed O’Neill, who coincidentally bitch-slapped traditional family values as Al Bundy in Fox’s “Married With Children.”
Jay has been divorced and now sports a trophy wife who is about as hot as it gets. Gloria Pritchett, played by Sophia Vergara, is a native Columbian and mother of Manny, her brilliant, chubby, pre-adolescent and possibly gay son. Her command of English is questionable and delivered in tones that would put an un-oiled screen door hinge to shame. Yet calling Gloria a trophy wife is actually a disservice, for despite the age and cultural differences she’s a loving and good-natured, albeit unintentionally hilarious wife and Mom.
Jay has two adult children of his own from his first wife, played with a convincing borderline personality disorder by actress Shelly Long.
Daughter Claire married real estate agent Phil. Claire does the ever-suffering wife and mom with sarcasm and humor. She has got a lot of inspiration and incentive to maintain her sharp edge because it’s a survival skill. Phil is good-intentioned and big-hearted but sees himself as the coolest of cool Dads. Needless to say, he’s a constant source of embarrassment to his wife and kids.
One of the things that make “Modern Family” so good is the kids, Haley, Alex and Luke. Haley’s a Valley Girl, Alex is the brainiac younger sister, and Luke is, well, just a goofy kid.
Television has a nasty habit of injecting kids into sitcoms and more often than not, that’s the kiss of death. Anybody remember “Mad About You”? This time, though, the kids on “Modern Family” are magic. They’re the Three Bears of kids on a sitcom: not too much, not too little, they’re just right. Which brings us to Jay’s other offspring, Mitchell.
Mitchell is one of those earnest gay guys we’ve all met. He’s sincere, he’s serious and he’s married to Cameron. Cameron is an aspiring clown, as in real life red-nosed giant feet performing clown. He’s also a stay-at-home Dad for his and Mitchell’s adopted daughter Lily.
Mitchell hustles himself off to a steady job at the law firm every day like all good daddies, and Cameron envisions a perfect childhood for their little angel. One of Cameron’s many inspirations was hiring a muralist to depict a heavenly, cloud-scaped visage of himself and Cameron, a la Michelangelo, to hover over Lily’s crib.
I have gay friends who are offended by Mitchell and Cameron. They think these two are stereotypes. Well, they are and it’s great to see sacred cows, even our own, skewered on a shish kabob. We want equality? Then we’re all fair game!
Personally, I don’t see the stereotype. Pudgy Cameron is a silly queen who will kick any butt to protect his family in a New York minute. Conversely, steady and practical Mitchell is terrified of sparrows.
Given the choice, I’d take this family over the Cleavers any day, because truth is almost always so much more entertaining than myth.
ABC, 8 pm Wednesdays
Kurt Niece is a freelance journalist from Tuscon, Ariz., and author of "The Breath of Rapture." He writes about television for Echo Magazine in Phoenix and SDGLN. He is also an artist who sells his work on his website.