Funny families who have the last laugh

As Modern Family screens on British TV, Sarah Hughes says that America has at last found its own Gavin & Stacey

In the over-crowded US television market it's hard to predict what will make a show a success and doubly so when dealing with comedy. For every traditional hit such as The Big Bang Theory, there's a quirky, innovative Community deserving of wider appeal; for every critically acclaimed, low-rated 30 Rock, there's a critic-proof ratings juggernaut like Two and a Half Men. And sometimes that rare show comes along that combines the traditional and the innovative and, in doing so, becomes both a critical and audience hit. It happened with Roseanne and Malcolm in the Middle and it's happening to Modern Family.

The much-lauded comedy, which just has started its second season on Sky1, dominated this year's Emmy awards and the second season premiere debuted in the US to an impressive 12.6 million viewers. So what is the secret behind Modern Family's growing appeal? On paper, it's a fairly straightforward take on the dynamics of the 21st-century extended family. There's Jay, the big-hearted, competitive patriarch, Gloria, his much younger Colombian trophy wife and Manny, her wise-beyond-his-years son from her first marriage. They're joined by Claire, Jay's permanently harassed daughter, her goofy husband Phil and their three kids, and Mitchell, Jay's occasionally uptight gay son, his more flamboyant partner. Cameron. and their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.

What lifts the show out of the ordinary, however, is the way in which it deliberately merges a traditional subject matter – inter-family dynamics – with the new pared-down sitcom style made popular in shows such as The Office, using a mockumentary framework complete with deliberately shaky single camera and no laugh track.

Yet as any rueful fan of Arrested Development could tell you, great timing and quickfire one-liners are not enough to turn a show from a critical success into a ratings hit. Thus, the real key to Modern Family's popularity lies in the way in which the writers and cast manage to balance heart with humour week after week. For where other modern sitcoms from The Larry Sanders Show to Ricky Gervais's The Office have used the naturalistic, documentary style to expose the foibles and frustrations of its characters, the writers on Modern Family prefer to serve up their laughter with a dollop of emotion on the side.

And in contrast to Arrested Development's Bluth Family, who were kooky eccentrics you laughed at rather than with, Modern Family's extended gang remind people of their own lives. "I think that people relate to it because their own family lives are complicated," says Sofía Vegara, who plays the constantly bemused Gloria.

That's not to say that Modern Family is perfect. The storylines are occasionally over-stuffed and there's a marked tendency towards pratfalls and slapstick. More annoyingly, there is always the sense that a scene could tip over into a saccharine "very special moment" at any time. Such moments though are rare and the feeling that those involved in the show care about their characters excuses those occasional sentimental lapses.

The truth is that the use of documentary-style cameras and those deadpan straight-to- camera soliloquies are misleading. Modern Family has more in common with the sweet-natured Gavin & Stacey then with the pitiless mockery of The Office or Extras. At their heart, both Gavin and Stacey and Modern Family are family entertainment: shows that the whole family can watch together and relate to. We might cringe when the central couple in Gavin & Stacey have to meet each other's families for the first time but in contrast to other Britcoms such as Peep Show it's a cringe born out of recognition not horror and the laughter is never cruel.

It is that twinge of recognition that has propelled Modern Family to the top of America's must-watch list. Other shows might offer more innovative storylines and cleverer references but lacking Modern Family's heart they also ultimately lack its appeal.

'Modern Family' screens on Sky1 on Thursdays

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'