What does it mean to be a modern family? The Emmy Award-winning TV show Modern Family, now in its second season, answers that question in two ways. The first fairly superficial answer that the show gives is that “modern families” are diverse. Cam and Mitchell are a gay couple who have adopted a Vietnamese baby whom they name Lily. Jay and Gloria are separated by 30 years and cultural lines; he’s the up-by-your-bootstraps all-American entrepreneur who likes football and chili dogs, she’s the volatile model from Colombia whose native village holds the record for the highest murder rate in the country. Gloria also has a 10-year-old son from a past marriage named Manny, who likes sipping espresso and wooing older women, much to Jay’s dismay. Even Phil and Claire Dunphy, who have three kids and live in a modest suburban house, are hardly your “typical” American family. Phil personifies the 15-year-old boy who never grew up; Claire is the girl who grew up when she was five. As for their kids, the oldest daughter Hailey has lots of looks but no brains, while her sister Alex is stuck with the opposite problem. The youngest child Luke is, as Claire says, “special.” Simply put, the members of Modern Family are a varied crew.
The “diversity” angle that Modern Family takes doesn’t make it too different from other successful sitcoms: it’s gently politically progressive and brings in a lot of extreme personalities, then lets the sparks fly for 20 minutes. Also typical is the show’s element of unreality, most notably demonstrated by the fact that all three families range in income level from comfortably well-off to wealthy. On another level, though, Modern Family gives a more challenging answer about what it means to be a family in modern-day U.S.A. This subtler answer implies that, despite the show’s title, family life in 2010 is not meaningfully different from the way we’ve always imagined it.
The idea of family involves clashing personalities, fighting, and eventual compromise for the good of the whole. For instance, on Christmas Day, Phil and Claire discover a hole burnt into the couch which they (wrongly) assume means one of their children has been smoking. None of the three kids will admit to it, so Phil somewhat intemperately cancels Christmas as punishment. Finally, Alex “admits” to smoking so that the family can have Christmas back (and, eventually, her parents realize their error).
Family also means learning to appreciate and support people who are incredibly different from you. Throughout the first season, all-American Jay struggles to come to terms with the fact that his son Mitchell is gay and has a partner. At his worst, Jay announces his entrance into a room beforehand so that he won’t have to watch Mitchell and Cam embrace. But when he finds out that the two have adopted a baby, Jay puts aside his misgivings and wholeheartedly congratulates the couple.
Finally, family means seeing each other more than twice a year—more like twice a week, actually. These constant interactions entail quite a bit of tension, since interpersonal differences often fester and then blow up. In season one, for example, Claire and Gloria are uncomfortable with each other. Gloria thinks Claire’s a control freak, and Claire thinks the beautiful 30-year-old Colombian who married her 60-year-old dad is a “gold digger.” Claire’s initial impulse is to sweep their differences under the rug, but her son Luke brings up the gold digger accusation at a family party. In the end, the two women are forced to resolve their differences—and things resolve happily.
These situations are all recognizable because they match what comes to mind when we think of families: places of infighting and petty annoyances, but also of unconditional acceptance. But Modern Family is especially challenging because the view of family that the show portrays moves ever further from reality than your average sitcom. In our mobile society where relatives and nuclear families alike are spread out over long distances, values like compromise, sacrifice, and constructive confrontation aren’t exactly the norm anymore. If you don’t like your relatives (or, once you’re in college, your parents), you can always limit your encounters to meaningless, once-a-year get-together debacles. Yes, we have cell phones and Skype, but these don’t make up for the constant, unavoidable interactions that link, challenge, and improve the characters of Modern Family. Modern Family is a sitcom and therefore a far cry from reality, but it’s not bad to have an idealization of unusually close family life as a reminder of what we’re leaving behind.