David Zurawik

'Modern Family' - How a sitcom manages to span our partisan divide

At first glance, it might not seem like much, two men calling ABC's "Modern Family" one of their favorite TV shows.

But when one is the Democratic president of the United States and the other his Republican challenger, you have to wonder if there isn't something special about the show that recently finished its third season as the most popular in prime time among young adult viewers.

Last week, The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both like iPads, grilled chicken, process-driven decisions and "Modern Family."

The shared sitcom is the item on the list that intrigues me. Everyone knows "Modern Family" is funny, winning and wise. The back-to-back Emmys earned as best comedy on TV the last two years bear witness to that. So do the many individual awards won by a cast and crew that includes Baltimore natives Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy and Jason Winer as director and an executive producer.

But does this series somehow transcend politics, too? And if so, how does a half-hour sitcom do that in a day and age when the partisan divide in American life is said to be wider than at any time since the Civil War?

Some analysts say the show "sidesteps" politics rather than transcending them, and that there is nothing groundbreaking about that in prime-time network television. But there's another point of view that sees "Modern Family" as a savvy combination of cutting-edge attitudes and old-fashioned TV values — a series that challenges viewers to think about family in new ways but always "gives you the big family hug at the end of each episode," in the words of Winer.

"You have to start with the fact that it's a large ensemble cast, but not in the sense of a big urban tribe like many other ensemble television shows," says Sheri Parks, a University of Maryland, College Park American studies professor. "Here the characters are members of three interrelated families, and those families are different enough so that you can come from almost any political position and engage with one of them."

The multicultural ensemble series tracks three households in the Pritchett clan. There's the home of patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill), who is married to the much younger Colombian emigre Gloria Delgado (Sofia Vergara). She has a son from a previous marriage who lives with the couple.

Jay's daughter, Claire, meanwhile, is married to the emotionally immature Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), and they have three children.

Claire's brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), have an adopted Vietnamese baby rounding out their family.

"So, there's the gay family with a child, the interracial family, and then, there's the family that looks more like the prototypical nuclear family with the dad, the mom and the kids. And you can enter the show wherever you want to," Parks says. "Rather than transcending politics, I think it's more a case of offering something for different political points of view."

Several analysts pointed to the way the series is deftly designed to function as a big tent that can house not only multiple political points of view, but even ones that would seem to be in direct conflict.

"It doesn't transcend politics so much as it sidesteps them," says Craig Seymour, an associate professor of communications at Northern Illinois University. "And in doing that, it allows you to interpret the characters and their situations in any number of ways based on what you're bringing to the TV."

While much has been made of the ground that "Modern Family" has broken in terms of depicting the family of Mitchell and Cameron, Seymour says even here the show is open to what he characterized as both progressive and conservative interpretations.

"From a conservative standpoint," he says, "you can look at the gay couple and say, 'Wow, they're really happy. They're doing anything everybody would want to do. Why would they need any special rights, any government intrusion on their behalf?'"

But, he adds, "On the flip side, you can look at Cameron and Mitchell and go, 'They're this loving family, raising this daughter. They're doing all this great stuff. They should have the same rights as everybody else. So, therefore, we need to pass laws and do everything we can in order for them to have the same rights as everybody else.' The possibility is there in 'Modern Family' for two different ways of looking at it."

Seymour sees the producers "sidestepping politics" in their approach to such real-world aspects of gay life as Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that successfully sought to invalidate any marriage not between a man and a woman.

"The show is set in California, and the whole Proposition 8 debate has been so heated in the last couple of years there, but I don't think I've ever heard a Proposition 8 reference," he says. "That seems to me a very deliberate avoidance of what would be quite natural for Cameron and Mitchell to be talking about. The show constantly brings up immigration issues in regard to the family with Sofia Vergara."

But from the first interview Winer did with The Sun when the show debuted in 2009, he has been consistent in saying the goal of "Modern Family" is entertainment, not politics.

"I would say we deal with matters of multiculturalism and gay issues quite matter-of-factly," he said. "It just exists, and it is accepted. Look, this family that the show is about has been dealing with and accepting it, and we're plopped right into the middle of their lives, so shouldn't we deal with it and accept it in the same matter-of-fact way that they do?"

After several interviews with Winer, it becomes clear that rather than progressive versus conservative, a more apt way of looking at the series is modern (or postmodern) versus traditional.

The modern elements include the matter-of-fact acceptance of multiculturalism and gay identity, as well as the mockumentary, single-camera look of the show.

"I think the audience has grown more sophisticated over the years because we now have a whole generation of people growing up with YouTube and reality content," Winer said. "Visually, people like to discover things — rather than showing you the joke, the show likes to let you find the joke."

But, in the end, all that is new and modern is subsumed in virtually every episode by a time-tested family sitcom model that dates back to the dawn of radio in the 1920s. In that formula, all the misunderstandings and conflict of the half-hour get resolved at the end of each episode in a scenario that reaffirms the family — and, in the case of "Modern Family," usually each of the three marriages.

As Winer put it, "Ultimately, the members of this family really love each other, and so there's a sweetness at the core of the show. ... It gives you the big family hug at the end of each episode."

Call it the cosmic TV hug in the case of "Modern Family." And in that moment, the different political and personal points of view come to a peaceful and loving co-existence within the bonds of the Pritchett clan.

No doubt that cosmic hug, which is often a literal one in this show, has extra appeal in this time of intense political polarization, economic uncertainty and technological transformation. But does it transcend politics?

"Let's just say there's an acceptance of differences there," says Nsenga Burton, associate professor of media studies at Goucher College. "There's an appreciation for extended families, and how you can't always choose who your family is. You can't always choose your kinfolk, but you accept them and their differences."