(*homocinematically inclined)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Actor Factor: The Cilantro of Sitcoms

I have never understood America's love of cilantro. To me, it tastes like stale sprigs of mint mixed with a batch of lye soap that Granny concocted in a steaming black kettle out by the cee-ment pond. I mention this because I find myself scratching my head in the same manner over the popularity, both critical and public, of Modern Family (the first season of which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray). To me, it is simply the cilantro of sitcoms.

The show centers around the trials and tribulations of the Pritchett and Dunphy families. Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) is the semi-surly granddad married to much younger, Latina wife, Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and the two are raising Gloria's young son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez) Jay's daughter, Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to husband, Phil (Ty Burrell) and the two are raising a generic family of three. Then there is Jay's gay son, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) who have just adopted a baby girl from somewhere in Asia.

The show is framed in the now almost prerequisite “mockumentary” style which leaves me forever screaming, “Who the hell are you talking to!” at the television. I must confess a particular loathing for this type of framing, especially when it is completely unexplained. I suppose we are just supposed to assume that all television is now “reality” and every one has a camera crew following them around 24/7. The problem is, when there are three to four or even five different camera shots in a hallway or car, one would think a cameraman would get caught in the shot from time to time. Nope... not even a stray foot. Comedy, like science fiction, has to be true to its own reality to make it believable, yet the characters keeping winking and giving the cameraman sideways glances on a regular basis.

“Who the hell are you winking at?!” Sorry... just had to get that out.

The stories play out in typical A-B-C fashion, bouncing back and forth between characters and plot lines. Situations borrow heavily from earlier family sitcoms, i.e.: camping trips and vacations, women drivers, old friends who are more successful... etc. The situations are usually made more “modern” and, presumably, funnier by throwing in some 21st century technology, gay and Latino characters and a healthy dose of cynicism.

The cast is capable and the characters semi-likeable, although Ed O'Neill's somnambulistic performance could be used in science classes to illustrate the eventual triumph of maximum entropy over the universe. Also, despite its Modern moniker, dated stereotypes predominate. Sofia Vergara's characterization is often over the top and comes across as if she were Charo and Rita Moreno's love child. The character of young Manny shows us just how cute early onset childhood diabetes can be. Ty Burrell is the typically semi-stupid dad and Julie Bowen is the blonde-ly innocuous wife who is a bit too good for him.

The worst offender, however, is Eric Stonestreet, whose take on a gay character belongs more in a Saturday Night Live sketch than it does in this show. Not a moment of his screen time is believable, and his portrayal ridicules his own character beyond the point of satire and stretches it to just plain insulting. Any kudos the show could have received for representing the gay community and casting actors who aren't stereotypically gorgeous in the gay roles is completely overshadowed by Stonestreet's performance. Fortunately, Stonestreet is counterbalanced by the brightest light in the cast, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, whose consistently grounded characterization always rings true.

With strong writing vets on board such as Christopher Lloyd, Steve Levitan and Abraham Higginbothem (The Golden Girls, Wings, Frasier and Will & Grace) one would think that Modern Family would contain more laugh out loud material. Indeed, the Lion King scene in the pilot episode is hysterical, but that is the exception not the rule with this show. One has to wonder if these writers even contribute more than a framework to the stories and that the execution is left to poor improv that aims at Christopher Guest's Best in Show but hits its mark with Eat Pray Love. I know, I know, the latter isn't an improved movie. Nor is it funny.

The DVD release contains all 24 season one episodes and special features, which include deleted “family interviews” (oh joy!) deleted, extended and alternate scenes; the obligatory gag reel and a few more extras that should please the show's seeming legions of fans.

I do find it rather ironic, though, that all of the first season episodes are rated only mediocre-to-fair on, despite the show's undeniable popularity. Personally, I think TV viewers are starving for the return of good sitcoms. With few exceptions (The Big Bang Theory, Cougar Town) modern television offers little in the way of truly funny half-hour comedies, and viewers are biding their time with shows such as Two and a Half Men (the mushrooms of sitcoms — don't get me started) and Modern Family.

It's sort of like when you're out to eat and you're so hungry that you eat that salsa in front of you no matter how much nasty cilantro is in it and how bad it tastes. There's just nothing else in which to dip your tortilla chip.

The Actor Factor: A View from Both Sides of the Camera is by James Jaeger, Los Angeles based actor and resident television critic of Movie Dearest.


  1. I like Modern Family, but I totally love your Cilantro slam! For years, I always thought that that awful metallic taste in salsa was from the can the tomatoes came from...When I discovered it was Cilantro, I suddenly noticed how omnipresent the awful weed is in foods.

  2. Sorry you don't get the joke, the writing is subtle and hilarious at the same time. And as a gay man, I have to disagree, Eric does a fantastic job portraying a gay man comfortable with his "Gayness". I know several men just like him, they are a a delight to be around, they are comfortable with themselves. I predict an Emmy, oh wait, he WON AN EMMY!! The Season 2 episode where Cam and Mitchell are trying to get Lily into a prestigious school is priceless!! Too bad you don't get it.