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