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Pilot Inspektor: An Advance Review of ABC's "Modern Family"

I have to say that ABC may have offered the most memorable upfront presentation in recent years, not because of the self-deprecation comedy stylings of Jimmy Kimmel but because they pulled off what many thought was impossible: they showed an entire pilot to advertisers and press. At the upfront itself.

Yesterday's upfront presentation, masterfully overseen by Anne Sweeney and Steve McPherson, led up to this groundbreaking moment by first showcasing the entire first act of its new drama series Flash Forward (a treat in itself) but then ABC went one step further by screening the full pilot episode of its new comedy Modern Family.

Modern Family, from creators/executive producers Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan (who most recently collaborated on FOX's short-lived comedy Back to You), tells the story of three very different families living in suburban America. Told in a mockumentary style that's clearly influenced by the work of director Christopher Guest, Modern Family seeks to shine a light on just how neurotic and idiosyncratic--and at the same time how reassuringly normal--every family is, no matter what its makeup.

This winning series follows the lives of three diverse families: there's Jay (Ed O'Neill), an older man who has taken a younger bride in Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and become a reluctant father to her idealistically romantic young son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). There's a traditional nuclear family, overseen by Phil (Ty Burrell), a dad who's far less cool than he believes himself to be, and Claire (Julie Bowen), a mom who struggles to keep her family moving in a straight line. Their kids, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Luke (Nolan Gould), and Alex (Ariel Winter) are a motley bunch, prone to getting their heads stuck in banisters and accidentally shooting one another with BB pellets. (In the pilot episode, 15-year-old daughter Haley brings home a high school senior and chaos--and painful hilarity--ensues.) Finally, there's gay couple Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and the doughy Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) who return from Vietnam with an adopted baby daughter Lily in tow.

I have to say that I was completely captivated by the pilot episode, directed by Jason Winer, which offered a nice blend of character introduction, comedic timing, and a nice twist ending that neatly ties the action together.

The cast is a real treat, with each of the actors perfectly cast in their roles. The role of Cameron could have been a stereotypical gay role but Stonestreet plays it (no pun intended) straight, offering a performance that's as naturalistic as it is nuanced, even as Cameron retains his sense of a dramatic entrance. (Cue the soundtrack to The Lion King.) The same holds for the talented Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who gives Mitchell an uptight, severe personality that's at odds with the messiness of real life he's about to encounter as a new parent; yet Ferguson's Mitchell never comes off as unlikable, despite a rant on an airplane about cream puffs. Sofia Vergara is hilarious as the sexy Gloria, who tosses off random facts about her past life and previous husband without filtering herself. Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen are welcome additions to any cast and they are well balanced as a married couple whose mission in life seems to be raising their kids so that they don't get pregnant or shoot anyone. (Seeing Burrell's solution to son Luke's inadvertent shooting of his sister is hilarious.) Additionally, it's fantastic as well to see the curmudgeonly Ed O'Neill back as a series regular; here, his gruff demeanor and caustic comments belie a, well, gruff interior as well.

Unlike NBC's Parks and Recreation, which doesn't quite know how to use the mockumentary format to its advantage, Levitan and Lloyd employ the usual tricks of the trade: hand-held cameras, talking heads, etc. but they use them significantly better here than the writer/producers of Parks and Recreation. As it's the pilot installment, the talking heads--in which the couples are paired together, talking about themselves and their families--serve to introduce the characters and explore their relationships, but the reveals are always based in humor and never feel overtly expositional. (One rather humorous example: Gloria recounts the small village that she hails from, turning to her husband to remind her how to say in English what her town was number one in. "Murders," he says succinctly. "Ah, yes, the murders," purrs Gloria, who later recounts how she and her former husband fell out of a window while making love.)

Modern Family is one part of ABC's new comedy strategy on Wednesday evenings, where it will launch a two-hour block of half-hours that also includes fellow family comedies Hank and The Middle, which separately boast Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, both of whom worked with Levitan and Lloyd on Back to You. Despite the marquee names of Modern Family's lead-in series, I can't help but root for Modern Family after falling for this series' winning combination of biting wit, subtle humor, and heart. Ultimately, this is one family I'm more than happy to spend time with each week.

Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 pm ET/PT this fall on ABC.


rockauteur said…
I thought it was awesome too. Really funny. Too bad ABC won't know how to market this one... and will probably end up in the Notes from the Underbelly pile of cancellation (another series I liked).
The CineManiac said…
I've been a fan of Jesse Tyler Ferguson since The Class a couple of years back (hell, I even watched the horrible Fox comedy about the hotel this season for 2 episodes because of him and Dave Franco, but they weren't enough to subject myself to that crap more than twice)
Look forward to checking this show out.
Veronica said…
Thanks for the great review, Jace! We definitely need more good comedies on the air right now and it looks like this one fits the bill. I'm kind of over the mockumentary-style thing but at least it seems to work in this show. I'm looking forward to seeing it!
Annie said…
This seems like it could be a lot of fun! Will keep my eyes out for it in the fall.
Ally said…
Agree w/Cinemaniac - been a fan of JTF's since The Class. He was great here, as was Stonestreet. Lion King moment, as well as the mural reveal - hilarious.

I really enjoyed this pilot, even though I was completely distracted by the poor job they did of giving Julie B something to hold in front of her VERY pregnant body. It was just so awkward. Their story, in general, was my least favorite. I thought Ty B was very funny, but feel like his character could get old and soon.

Looking forward to seeing more eps.
Anonymous said…
I was lucky enough to see the pilot, and it's hilarious, clever and even touching! The character of Cameron, played by Eric Stonestreet is definitely the highlight...he steals the show! This show is truly special...a great sitcom that everyone will be able to relate to!
Anonymous said…
I'm glad you liked it. The french show its based on is excellent, and i have high hopes for this.
Anonymous said…
If you have "traditional" family values don't watch Modern Family on ABC.
Nick Leshi said…
Good review. See my own write up on Blogcritics and let me know what you think:
Kate said…
I laughed out loud so many times during last night's pilot episode! It was HILARIOUS! One of the best new shows I've seen so far.
Anonymous said…
I watched this on Hulu and would have been better off watching my water pot boil. It was simply NOT funny. The best parts had been overplayed in the relentless promotion. The writing all "tries too hard" yet they don't get the true humor that comes from being totally over the top like "Family Guy", "Always Sunny in Philadelphia" or something that goes too far. It just wasn't funny. Watch the paint dry or boils some water but save these precious life moments for anything else. If it lasts a season, go back and watch them all and witness the miracle of fixing a lame show. Otherwise, expect it to be gone in fairly short order.

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