Photo: ABC/Byron Cohen

Sitcoms are largely resistant to change. While some certainly challenge conventions, most want to keep the formula exactly the same. That’s what viewers expect and want. They tune in weekly so that they can spend some time with the characters they know, without any big surprises. Sure, there are moments and plots that change the lives of those characters in ways that seem important, but it’s only a few episodes later that it’s clear not much has really changed. Something like The Big Bang Theory might contain marriages and babies and infidelity and any number of life-altering moments across its numerous season, but the characters mostly stay the same.

That formula is pretty reliable when it comes to ratings, but it doesn’t exactly translate to quality TV. There’s the risk of a show becoming stale, like Modern Family has in recent years. Gone are the days of comedic spark, and instead we’re into the Golden Years of the show, where everything’s slowed down, predictable, and the best we can hope for is a quick death. Here’s the conundrum though: in many ways, Modern Family has tried to grow. It’s tried to push the characters in new directions, but it’s never fully committed. So while the likes of Luke, Haley, Gloria, Manny, and many others have experienced upheaval in different ways, the show’s stuck trying to keep things the same. That creates a storytelling disconnect that’s hard to overcome.

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Alex is perhaps the trickiest of the bunch. She’s the one who always had promise, who, out of all the Dunphy kids, was the one who was going to make something of herself. When she went off to college, there was the sense that Modern Family might begin telling different stories with her, only to then completely drop the ball. Most recently, there’s been an attempt to treat Alex as a more “adult” character, as someone who’s exploring romantic and sexual relationships. In other words, she’s a little more Haley now.

That change should be admirable, or at least fruitful in terms of storytelling, opening up new emotional avenues for the character. Her boyfriend Bill (the fantastic Jimmy Tatro) should be the character that changes our perspective on Alex. And yet, Modern Family seems to understand that change is hard to pull off. “I’m not a fan of liberated Alex,” says Claire in one of two slightly meta moments from this week’s episode. She cringes at how open Alex is about her sex life and her love for Bill, and we have to admit that it is weird. So, if a sitcom should strive for change to avoid complacency, how does it also steer clear of transitions that simply feel awkward or out of character? I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

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I have a little more hope that Modern Family will handle the case of Lily entering adolescence a little better. Her story this week, involving telling her fathers that she pretends to like the things they do (Lady Gaga! Britney Spears!) because they’re so invested in being similar, feels like it’s a long time coming. Lily’s been a non-entity for years, so to finally see her show a shred of personality, via screamo music no less, is promising. It’s the first sign that she has thoughts and feelings and tastes of her own, and that she’s not just a punchline, or a vehicle for Cam and Mitchell’s storylines.

If I had to propose a way forward for Modern Family, which has backtracked about this potentially being the final season as the cast negotiates contracts for one more, it’d be to focus on the children more. Expand their stories. Give them more to do than just be caricatures. I mean, what the hell is Manny even doing with his life? Who is he, other than a walking fedora with an out of control Mommy complex? Where has Luke been all season? There are only so many stories to tell with the adults, and them raising their kids has provided its fair share of laughs and frustrations. But it might be time to really change things up. Haley’s pregnancy is a start, but the show needs to go further. We can’t keep watching Phil negotiate real estate deals, or Jay morph into the grumpy old man that populates every neighborhood. The show has to do more, and right now it’s not even close to doing enough.


Stray observations

  • Cam: “I’m not getting hysterical.” Mitchell: “We’re minutes away.” Cam: “Fair enough.” Marriage is truly knowing your partner.
  • I don’t think I ever want to hear the words “purse jerky” again.
  • One of the many reasons Pepper has turned down buying houses from Phil: the backyard not being zoned for his falcons.

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