Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Modern Family: Reign of an Emmy Juggernaut

*With the Emmys airing next Sunday night (9/22), we're going to take a look at a handful of the nominees this week.*

When Modern Family first debuted in 2009, it was, at first, seemingly just another single-camera sitcom. The mockumentary-style that The Office made popular was hitting its saturation point, and it had been quite some time since a family sitcom had really taken off on any network. At first glance, Modern Family wasn't particularly revolutionary: three inter-related clans interact with one another, hilarity ensues. There was the "traditional" family of Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), and their three kids (Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould); Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) - Claire's brother - and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), his partner; Jay (Ed O'Neill) - Claire and Mitch's father - and his young Colombian wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her son (Rico Rodriguez).

Certainly the set-up lived up to the show's moniker, but there was much more to it than that. In those early days, the writers seemed to make it their mission to subvert as many sitcom tropes as possible. The experience was certainly there: creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan were sitcom veterans, having previously worked on Frasier and Wings together (Lloyd had also worked on The Golden Girls, while Levitan wrote for The Larry Sanders Show). It certainly helped, too, that the cast was uniformly strong, making the comedy hit that much harder.

And when the 2010 Emmys rolled around, Modern Family was a big winner: scoring nominations for most of the adult cast (Stonestreet won Supporting Actor in a Comedy) and winning Best Comedy Series. The next year, the show repeated the series win and acting nominations. And then they did it again last year.

Has the show held up, creatively speaking? Not necessarily. The past two seasons have been weaker, and a lot of that has to do with age. Every comedy on television eventually settles into a groove after a few seasons; it's not always a bad thing, it's just the writers and actors becoming comfortable with the characters and giving audiences what they expect. However, in Modern Family's case, this resulted in the characters becoming the very tropes they were originally subverting. That's not say the show isn't good; it's just not as fresh and interesting as it once was.

Obviously, this hasn't really hurt its success at the Emmys. Sunday night, the show will be going for its fourth consecutive win in Best Comedy Series. Should it win, it would join Frasier, All in the Family, Cheers, and The Dick Van Dyke Show as the only programs with four or more wins in the category (Frasier is the all-time series champ - comedy or drama - with five wins). And there's a very good chance that it will win (I'd bet money on it). It's the "safest" choice: a critical and popular hit that's not risque or controversial, and it's a reliable joke-telling machine in a classic sitcom mode. That's to say nothing of the fact that it has more acting nominees than any other comedy.

But if not Modern Family again, then who? A quick breakdown of the other contenders:

- Louie is perhaps too experimental and not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in the standard one-liner joke machine way) enough for the honor. It's by far the critical favorite, but I don't know if its fanbase extends past critics and comedy nerds. It would be the worthiest choice, in my opinion.

- Girls is simply too divisive and controversial among critics and audiences. Voters won't want to bring that kind of heated debate upon themselves.

- Veep is probably not well-known enough to grab the win; to me, it was a surprise nominee both this year and last. It's more likely to be a winning vehicle for Julia Louis-Dreyfuss again than in this category.

- 30 Rock could potentially win if they want to send the beloved series off with a win, but the Emmys rarely do that. Only a few have ever accomplished the feat, the most recent being Everybody Loves Raymond in 2005.

- The Big Bang Theory is the most likely contender to spoil Modern Family's party. It's a hugely-popular multi-camera sitcom - the only one amongst this years nominees - which puts it squarely in the Emmy voters' wheelhouse. It's deep into its run at this point, this most recent season being its sixth, but this was also its most-watched year, in terms of average viewers. Plus, a win this late in the game isn't unprecedented: Friends didn't win its first Comedy Series Emmy until 2002, the show's eighth season.

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