Modern Family winning the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for its debut 2009-2010 season is one of the many great pages in recent television history, and probably a fitting way to cap off the decade. It is not just that the show is unfailingly uproarious for reasons I shall soon delve into, but also that Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have taken transatlantic television a step further.
The 2000s are arguably the greatest decade for American TV, a decade which mixed the experimentalism of its early 1950s days with confidence in commerciality—a combination distinctly lacking from the 1960s to the 1990s. After the so-called “golden age,” the American networks adopted a business model based on how blocks of commercial advertising, not sponsorship of individual programs, made them the most money…which made sense since you were being paid by more people to reach a potentially mass audience, the same theory behind the Super Bowl. However, to attract the mass audience, formulaic, inoffensive programming was created: I can’t remember the number of Westerns running in 1960, but it was a LOT, and then came the procedural, the family-friendly sitcom, the primetime soap in the 80s, shows designed to continue for 20-25 episodes a year and draw viewers back no matter how repetitive they became. Even shows like Hill Street Blues became trapped in convention despite efforts at constructing a new formula.
Meanwhile, in England, the BBC was creating innovative shows with very short seasons and a willingness to offend and play with convention—partly through the freedom which comes with a state TV tax to be sure, but partly through not underestimating intelligence and tastes, because deep down, every human being is attracted to the new. This whole process took a while…but ITV and other commercial networks in the UK copied the BBC because that was what people wanted to see…and when HBO got rich enough to produce original programs, they could get away with copying the BBC model because they didn’t have commercials either…and as THESE shows skyrocketed in accolades and popularity, the other American networks began to catch on. Hence the decade of The Wire, Mad Men, Lost, Deadwood, The Shield, Weeds, Arrested Development, and things like John From Cincinnati which people suddenly wanted to take a chance on.
As usually happens on this blog, I haven’t said much about Modern Family yet, but I’m getting there right now. For all of the greatness of the new television, domination of this formula would be like having nothing but Bergman, Fellini, and Godard playing at multiplexes forever. They’re beautiful and everybody should definitely see them, but we also need to have some fun! The best of both worlds would be a hybrid which respected the conventions of American pop television but incorporated the strides of the last fifteen years. Arrested Development, one of the greatest shows of my lifetime, came so very, very close…but it was still too scale-tipping away from the mass audience. America has gotten used to sitcom families whose behavior, even when annoying, is endearing, whose quarrels are either comically resolved or provide fodder for “very special episodes,” who were all good-hearted at the end of the day. The Bluths were an assortment of very despicable people whose conflicts were outrageous, who broke laws, who contemplated incest, and whose only all-out decent member called up weapon after weapon but could never bring them in line. Arrested Development was about the triumph of moral anarchy in a direct assault on family values. It tried to destroy the sitcom paradigm in one titanic swoop.
Modern Family, on the other hand, subverts the paradigm while respecting it. Just as in everything from Father Knows Best to The Cosby Show to the innumerable sitcoms about blended families, the Pritchett-Dunphy clan live an upper-middle-class (accent on upper) life, and the three couples with children are very happy together, and still further the issues which would make “very special episodes” are far removed. But that’s where the similarities end. As someone who grew up in a large but close and loving family, I can attest to the pleasure and sometimes necessity of really not liking your parents or your children, of snarkily needling them on their flaws and irritable traits, of clashing with others because of fundamental differences in character which emerge only when you live in the same house, and not in broadly drawn Neil Simon fashion but in things like how important it is to have a state-of-the-art TV and whether or not to go to the lavender plantation and similar locales day after day. Modern Family celebrates the incompatibilities and miniature culture clashes and sarcasms which go part and parcel with loving your spouse and children and parents and such in a way no other sitcom has really dared to do before…we can show the kids, especially the teenagers, at war, but never everybody finding points of disagreement in just about any situation. And what makes Modern Family work is the realization that on the small scale of everyday life, this is drama enough! No wonder a Dutch TV crew has gotten it (for the mockumentary conceit). Everybody should get this! Couple it with intelligent jokes definitely not written for the LCD and a liberal dose of physical comedy, and we’ve got a gold mine.
I don’t want to break down the first season episode by episode, because there are no real off shows even when a plot strand falls flat. But what I realized in watching the entire season was how Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are really the straight man and woman to the jokers of Jay’s offspring…and this also lends credibility to their marriage. Jay and Gloria each have a rock-solid core set of values, a willingness to change when confronted with the necessity to do so, and common sense they frequently share with the analytical, fussy Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), free-wheeling but overly protective Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), perfectionist Claire (Julie Bowen), and sublimely idiotic Phil (Ty Burrell, who deserves something for being so incredibly out of it week after week).
Three last things. I love the portrayal of Mitchell and Cameron’s relationship, which is never made a big deal of and actually is recognizably parallel to the long marriage of Phil and Claire. While Jay and Gloria are so similar, the other two couples have noticeable strengths and weaknesses which their partners complement fully.
The children on the show are, as common to other such shows, funny but overshadowed by their parents…although Nolan Gould, who is actually in MENSA, is great as the youngest Dunphy, Luke, who runs through glass doors, locks himself in dog transporters, and cannot throw a baseball.
And I wasn’t going to name individual episodes, but the pilot is a fantastic introduction, “Great Expectations” features two really good guest stars in Elizabeth Banks (as Mitchell and Cameron’s longtime wild-child friend) and Edward Norton (as the bassist from Spandau Ballet…yes, really), and “The Incident,” “Airport 2010,” and “Hawaii” are note-perfect episodes which bring out the show’s genius: long stretches of realistic, sharp-tongued conflict culminating in moments where the family’s essential love for each other shines through…and then we laugh some more.
New friendships with TWO different people who have lived in Shanghai and the page-turning highs of Man’s Fate led me to pick up a few more books about the west-east relationship. For one, I revisited Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper’s biography Hermit of Peking, a story no screenwriter or dramatist could ever have devised. When given a copy of the unpublished, just-discovered memoirs of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the legendary scholar and historian who gave Oxford a magnificent library of Chinese texts, Sir Hugh’s amazement at the obscenity present in the memoirs led him on an epic search to find the truth about Sir Edmund’s life. The result is not so much a full biography as a piece of fascinating detective work which historians dream of. Presenting the story both chronologically and thematically, including an annoying habit of dropping hints of revelations to come which smacks too much of pulp fiction once in a while, Sir Hugh makes a startling argument on the factuality of both the memoirs and all of Sir Edmund’s work in history and academics. Hermit of Peking is entertaining, but it also carries a sharp warning of how easy it is to create something unreal and pass it off as the genuine article…and how easy anyone can be taken in.
And after almost a decade of hearing people talk now and then about the great Cuban-Italian writer Italo Calvino, I finally got my feet wet with his short 1974 novel Invisible Cities. This is a GEM. But be warned: the plot of the novel is the conscientious evolution of mankind, the meanings and beliefs and desires which bind us together, the way we deal with our mortality, and how we communally look at the world…and it is told through a series of one or two page snippets where Marco Polo describes the cities of the empire to Kublai Khan. No, they don’t sound like they go together when I put it that way. But start flipping through the book, be seduced by Signor Calvino’s descriptions of cities suspended over mountain passes, cities perched on the edge of desert and ocean, cities with exact copies built underground in which the dead are able to perform the functions they dreamed of when they were living, of cities where every action is reflected in the stars. Sooner or later, you will find yourself moved by how these dry factual statements sneak up on you and tear at the core of what makes you a feeling creature, of why you love and why you hate and why you remember and why you persevere. When it’s over, you’ll be sad, wishing there could have been more. You’ll also want to go to Venice, but that’s understandable in any case.
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno…
Then make them endure…
Give them space.”
A lesson for not only those who build cities, but those who seek to build institutions, dreams, lives with those they love.
Finally, I revisited the two albums Bob Dylan recorded with Daniel Lanois: Oh Mercy (1989) and the Album of the Year-winning Time Out of Mind (1997). On both records, Mr. Lanois surrounds Mr. Dylan with ringing guitars, echoing organs and keyboards, drumming kept in the background but firm, and recording which brings out the ravaged, prophetic, elder statesman qualities of Mr. Dylan’s voice while keeping his grip on melody—or what’s left of it. But on listening to them back to back, a clear divide emerges. The chapter on Oh Mercy was my favorite part of Mr. Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles, an unflinching confession of confusion and self-disgust turning to acceptance and rebirth, midwifed by the difficult Mr. Lanois. And as befit someone who’d gotten sloppy as a poet and composer, the songs, though very good, are all short and simplistic, Mr. Dylan choosing only a set number of usually repetitive words to convey an unambiguous idea, the two exceptions being “Man in the Long Black Coat” and “Most of the Time.” But by Time Out of Mind, having survived serious illness and gotten back out in touring and reimmersion in folk and blues, Mr. Dylan produces what is basically Blood on the Tracks Part II, but two decades on, the desperation and anguish have only increased with awareness of mortality…and yet the desire for love and belief in love remains undiminished, with “To Make You Feel My Love” being his most sincere love song ever with the possible exception of “Sara.” There are songs on Time Out of Mind I’d like to hear forever: the break-up ballads “Standing in the Doorway” and “Trying to Get to Heaven,” the cool, twisting rocker “Cold Irons Bound,” and “Not Dark Yet,” one of those rare bits of musical perfection we come across now and again. Mr. Dylan’s confidence, however, also produced the 16-minute why-doesn’t-this-stupid-song-end “Highlands,” which has none of the positive qualities of the earlier epics (“Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”) and should have been replaced by the great, valedictory outtake “Red River Shore.” Why Mr. Lanois couldn’t put his foot down there is a mystery.