Emmy voters were a little lazy with their comedy choices this year. Predictably, ABC comedy “Modern Family” took home multiple major awards this past Sunday, including, most notably, best comedy. All six of its adult cast members were nominated for acting, with Julie Bowen and Eric Stonestreet taking home the awards for best supporting actress and actor, respectively. Steve Levitan, one of the show’s creators, also won for directing.
Needless to say, “Modern Family” got a lot of Emmy love. But considering the other worthy nominees in each category, along with its often not-so-hilarious third season, makes me wonder: Why the “Modern Family” fixation?
In many ways, “Modern Family” captures something difficult for today’s comedy shows in that it manages to be both widely popular and critically lauded. Emmy voters seem preoccupied with rewarding the show for that, as if to say to audiences, “See? We like more than just niche cable shows.” It’s a kind of pandering to the masses. Point illustrated: I got a text from my mom on Sunday night about the show’s best comedy win. I told her I was disappointed that the other great talent in the category was ignored, to which she replied, “Yeah, but ‘Modern Family’ really is the best.” Now, I would just like to say that I watch a lot of the same television as my mom and think she has good taste in TV, but she doesn’t really watch comedies, besides “Modern Family,” making it impossible for her to say whether it is actually better than the other comedies in the category.
And it just wasn’t. Especially last season. Certainly less innovative than some of the other nominees in the category, “Modern Family” seems to have subscribed to a very derivative form of its original episodic structure, in which 1) characters act silly, 2) other characters get annoyed at the ones acting silly, 3) everybody hugs at the end, and one character states the moral of the episode in a voiceover.
There is also always some happy-sounding background music during this voiceover. Episode after episode, it gets a bit nauseating to have everything tied up in such a neat bow.
Contrast that with a show like HBO’s “Girls,” which found comedy in the often-directionless lives of Brooklyn 20-somethings, never trying too hard to definitively answer the questions it posed. There need not be direct lessons in comedy, something that “Modern Family” — as a show to some extent meant for, well, families — doesn’t quite recognize. Of course, “Girls” is inherently different from “Modern Family” as far as intended audience goes, but that does not mean that similar rules cannot apply.
“Girls” is not afraid to fumble with things. Creator, writer and star Lena Dunham embraces the unresolved, makes use of the confusing and highlights the unexpected. Often, this actually makes things funnier; other times, it helps the audience better understand the psychology of the characters.
“Modern Family,” while also very character based, sometimes reduces its players to mere two-dimensional figures in an effort to keep its formula going in order to close the book at the end of each episode and then open back to the first chapter the following week. This is not unusual in comedy, but in the ever-changing climate of TV, shows need to take risks in order to continue to be critically acclaimed, though this does not always gel with popular appeal.
It is too soon to tell if “Modern Family”’s fourth season, which premiered Wednesday, will be more of the same or if it will seek to mix things up, but considering that viewers and voters keep saying yes to the way things are, there is not much incentive for the show’s writers to make any changes.
Bridget Mullen is a sophomore in the College. SMALL SCREEN OBSESSIONS appears every other Friday in the guide.