October 4, 2012
“What a sitcom! No blood, no birth, no love, no death, no sweat.” –John Leonard
If last year belonged to Bridesmaids—with its wave of female-helmed comedies followed by an unequal and opposite reaction of sitcoms about male anxiety—this just might be the year of “Modern Family.”
The success of “Modern Family” constitutes an interesting entry to the sitcom genre. A large part of its success should be credited to the perfect congruence of its mockumentary format with, well, our modern sense of family. The interview cutaways mirror our constant, prickling nervousness over questions of integrity and functionality. The Atlantic’s James Parker said it best when he called family “an acutely self-conscious and self-interrogating unit,” forever asking, “How does one ‘parent’? Who does what, which ‘role’? Is Dad sufficiently dad-like and Mom enough of a mom?” The creators of “Modern Family” are keenly attuned to this anxious thrum.
Even beyond this Sunday’s Emmy Awards, the show seems to have cast a long shadow over this fall’s slate of new programs. At least three—“Guys with Kids,” “The New Normal,” and “Ben and Kate,” ask the same essential question: in this day and age, what makes people family, anyway?
Next to this, “Guys with Kids” feels especially and bizarrely retrograde. While the show may riff off of the idea of women in the workplace, stay-at-home fathers, and implicitly, the so-called “end of men,” it actually carries on a long tradition of TV about fatherhood, or at the very least, bumbling dads. Set in that strange but familiar TV Land where the men are loveable dolts and their significant others are shrews, there are a few modern twists—a breadwinner wife is the one who forgets the wedding anniversary—but the show largely conforms to the Apatowian trope of male self-assertion. So far, it’s run through a number of classic sitcom plots: the henpecked divorcé stands up for his right to go on a date and parent as he sees fit; a well-meaning but occasionally foolish husband has to make up for some blunder.
Though the writing is solid and the lines well-delivered, nothing they say is new. “Guys with Kids” might’ve been pitched—and sold—on the premise that the only thing funnier than The Hangover‘s Zach Galifinakis carrying a baby in a harness is that times three. Beyond that, the show just as easily could’ve been made in the nineties. The scenes are tied to a studio set and taped in front of a studio audience, which makes them feel unnaturally circumscribed. Who are these parents who get to stay in one room all the time? What portrait of modern parenthood doesn’t include close-ups from in a minivan? With all that hearty (and supposedly live) laughter breaking out at regular intervals, the show winds up feeling stale.
Contrast with “The New Normal,” which refuses to be straight-up comfort food. Premised on the bond between a gay couple and the surrogate mother carrying their child, the show is rinsed with the same wash of sticky sentimentality and rancid nastiness as “Glee”: each episode contains (a) at least one character insisting that it’s love that matters, not sexual orientation, and (b) at least one character saying something offensive. Each episode may end with some touching affirmation of the family these characters have forged for themselves, but Ryan Murphy—the mind capable of producing “Glee” and “American Horror Story” simultaneously—only wants to serve candied apples if he gets a couple of razor blades in.
For this purpose he’s created the character of Nana (Ellen Barkin), one of those elderly characters whose age gives them a free pass for outrageous behavior. A decent chunk of the dialogue is structured around Nana saying something racist, and the other characters reacting to her with incredulity, outrage, exasperation and/or scathing put-downs. Chief among the latter is Rocky (NeNe Leakes), a caricatured sassy black woman, who herself seems to be a racist joke—but one made by the writers, not by the characters. It’s difficult to anatomize humor in “The New Normal,” because we’re never sure who our laughter is supposed to be directed towards: Nana’s boldness? Her ignorance? The minority group she’s maligning? Or the audience, who should have grown accustomed to this whiplash?
The show with the most earnest answer to the question of what makes a family seems to be “Ben and Kate,” about a single mother whose mischief-making, Adam Sandler-esque older brother moves in with her and her young daughter. Having a single mother as a focal point is unusual for a genre which has typically been the province of dads struggling to hash it on their own. But while Kate’s struggles to support her family are real, her motherhood and marital status aren’t her only salient characteristics: she’s shy around men, she’s protective of her older brother, she has always followed the rules. A great deal of attention was paid to character development, and to striking exactly the right tone between the siblings: exasperation, affection, and most of all, familiarity. “Ben and Kate” doesn’t makes claims about the rise of women, the end of men, the strengths or failures of single moms, or any other inflamed gender war skirmish. It cares about the story of these people who care about each other.
The literary critic John Leonard once traced the parentage of the sitcom from the House of Atreus right through the Karamazovs. He was referring to the form’s undercurrent of dysfunction, the sense of chaos—domestic mishaps, minor calamities—barely held in check by overpowering archetype. The sitcom’s natural habitat and eternal concern is the American home, from the perfectly nuclear 50s (“I Love Lucy,” “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver”) to the slightly more complicated arrangements of later decades: families with very large pets, workplace families, fathers widowed or, eventually, divorced. The shows evolved as the times did, yet the characters reflected neither the emotional nor the demographic reality of the viewing public. There were few, if any, which starred single mothers.
This generation of sitcom can have its own myopia. Gay couples on television, as in “Modern Family” and “The New Normal,” are nearly always upper-middle class men; with the exception of one family in “Guys with Kids,” the characters in these shows are also overwhelmingly white. Racial homogeneity particularly undermines these shows’ claims to realism, and to their project of widening the definition of “mainstream.”
Taken together, however, these sitcoms still manage to promote progressive values—most centrally, the idea that the term “family” can stretch across generations, sexual orientation, and political beliefs, that what matters is not its composition but its bonds. The sitcom may always make some kind of claim about the norm, but at its best, it seems to have shut the door on its oldest, deepest fears about the integrity of the American home—and for good.
Sophia Nguyen is a junior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.