Thursday, January 14, 2010

Modern Family: Some thoughts from Steve Levitan

Didn't love last night's "Modern Family." Thought the Cam/Mitchell and Phil/Claire plots were very predictable and sitcom-y, and the Jay/Gloria/dog butler plot only worked because it was so silly (and the writing embraced that). But after the jump, I have some press tour thoughts from "Modern Family" co-creator Steve Levitan about several topics we've been discussing about the show over the course of this season...

On whether it's a documentary or not: Levitan said that in the original pitch, it was explicitly a documentary, made by a Dutch filmmaker named Geert Floorjte who had lived with Jay's family as a teenage exchange student and developed a crush on Claire (while Mitchell had a crush on him). In the end, he and Christopher Lloyd decided it was an unnecessary component of the show - especially since they weren't sure how much they liked the idea of their characters letting themselves be filmed.

"It’s a conversation we have a lot," he said. "Is it a true documentary, or is it a family show done documentary-style? I prefer the latter because I don’t like those families who let cameras in their houses in real life. I just can’t stand those shows. So it makes me — it would make me question them a little bit. Who would allow all of this to be filmed by a crew? So I like the idea that it’s just our style of storytelling."

On the heartwarming voiceovers that end each episode: When I asked Levitan what he'd learned over the course of the season, he admitted that he and Lloyd are striving for "a constant balance about how much heart. I think we’re much sappier than we realized we were. We thought we were very cynical, typical comedy writers, and we find ourselves really enjoying those moments where the show sort of sneaks up on you and makes you feel something. And I think that we’re just — one of the biggest challenges for us right now is finding the right level of that so that we don’t overdo it, so that it doesn’t become expected that there will always be a very sweet wrap-up at the end."

On the balance between episodes where the three families intermingle and ones (like this one) where they're mostly separate: I had recorder issues, so I can't give you the exact quote, but Levitan said they don't want to mix the families too often because "it would feel contrived." But he also said they were having a lot of fun with the combinations, and have been surprised how well some of them (like Gloria and Cameron in an upcoming episode) work.

Hopefully, they can find ways to do mixing on a small scale (the best scene tonight, I thought, was Jay and Mitchell commiserating about their great-on-paper spouses) even if they're understandably reluctant to do large family gatherings each week.


Brandy said...

I'm not sure mixing the families often is contrived. There was a time when all four of my adult sibs and I (the youngest but in high school at the time) lived within 20 miles of one another. Somebody was always off doing something with somebody else and somebody was always feeling left out. I just assumed that's the way things worked in families.

I liked the dog bit. It was silly. But it was done well. I agree that the other plot was more predictable but they hit the right notes and even though I knew it was happening Luke confessing to his mom was pretty funny. I totally knew where it was going, but they did a nice job playing the farce anyway.

Rinaldo said...

I liked tonight's episode. (I continue to find Gloria a heavy-handed actress without comic zing, but everyone else seems just right.) Rather than general family gatherings, I enjoy ad hoc combinations of individual family members, and there are a number of those that still haven't come up.

I also enjoy when some subplots are more farcical than others -- the mixture of tones suits the show, and keeps the concluding sappiness from being excessive (usually).

As for the talking-directly-to-the-camera, I've decided to think of it as the stylistic equivalent of a classic soliloquy (or the moments "in limbo" in Once and Again, if anyone remembers that), the characters' "real thoughts"... as opposed to them actually addressing a camera crew. I know they're not quite consistent about how these speeches interact with "reality," but I can let it go.

David Thiel said...

I also felt last night's show was far too sitcom-y, especially the ever-increasing number of wedding party members who just happened to be standing at the door (without knocking) every time Mitchell opened it.

That said, Cam's dog-butler monologue in the closing scene left me gasping for breath.

Josh said...

I thought last night's episode was OK; Ty Burrell is still very funny, even if his character is too often over-the-top. The whole dog butler thing was funny, though Cam's final monologue only made me laugh once they were in the car, and Barkley was hanging out the window.

I'm not exactly sure I'm cool with Levitan's statement that the show's like Arrested Development, in that it's filmed like a documentary but it's not a documentary. I agree that the original idea would have been a bit too weird, but...they have talking heads. It's far too obvious that the characters still treat the show as a documentary, especially when they acknowledge the camera being in a scene.

Still a good show, but not a great one.

WilforkForFood said...

I agree with David's comment from above about Cam pretending to speak as the Dog at the end- probably the funniest part of the episode.

The wedding piece was predictable and not very funny and the porn-picture / diary story just wasn't funny and at times uncomfortable to watch.

Still a show worth watching, but I find my thumb going for the fast forward button a little to frequently during the last few episodes.

Anonymous said...

"Like Anne Frank's?"

Pure comedy brilliance.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the creators are self-conscious about the sappy element of the show, particularly the "heartwarming voiceover" at the end. I'm a very sentimental guy, but I find that part of MF way over the top. Maybe it's the voiceover, which is a kind of double underlining of the message that the story already makes obvious. But the bottom line is that the heartwarming ending which has wrapped up virtually every episode so far is jarring, because it plays like an apology for the wicked humor - a consolation to the segment of the audience that really has no sense of humor and just wants the reassuring warmth of a family sitcom.

dez said...

I found the show uneven last night, but the belly laughs (esp. Cam's Barkley voiceover) made up for it. I also loved Phil holding the two basketballs when he was having his talk with Luke at the end.

Toby O'B said...

The laugh-out-loud moment was Gloria catching Jay and Barkley "holding hands" in front of the priest....

And I missed Manny from the mix.

jenmoon said...

The dog thing was crazy, but darned if they didn't pull it off.

And while I'm not so into the "heart" thing, Jay and Mitchell bonding over their spouses was pretty dang cool.

Not caring so much about the porn plot, but whatever.

Anonymous said...

I can't stand Gloria. She's just awful. But everything else about MF is great. Phil, Cam, Mitchell and and both boys are all hilarious.

Anonymous said...

While it might feel forced if they tried to get all the different family members together every single week, I also think keeping them separate is really pretty limiting. Claire and Phil's family is at least large enough that there are several different character combinations they can use and lots of characters from whom they can mine stories. The other families are much more limited, though. I think it's going to be very difficult to sustain storylines for Cameron and Mitchell every week if they don't begin to interact with other people more. Last night's episode introduced the gardener, but it would be much more effective if they used a family member or someone else we actually cared about.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the show is at its best when they put everyone together, but when the three families are split up they can do different types of stories that wouldn't otherwise work in a 1/2 hour format. They would not do a whole episode about Cam and Mitchell needlessly taking their daughter to the doctor, but that was funny for 1/3 of the episode. Similarly, your typical 1/2 hour comedy might try to stretch Phil-goes-to-hospital or Manny's-real-dad-visits into full episodes. MF doesn't have to pad their stories like that because not every plot has to last 22 minutes when there are 3 separate things happening.

Unknown said...

Love, love LOVE this show, but have to say that Tuesday's plot was far too contrived, making this the weakest episode of all for me.

The problem for me is that MF is far less of a "farce" than the amazing Arrested Development was -- MF's strength is in "I've been there / I know someone like that" humor, and in the way that the documentary/confessional format makes us feel like we're peeping in on a hilarious, yet almost plausible reality.

The moment things get wildly implausible, like the whole gardener/wedding storyline and Gloria suddenly becoming stupid enough to believe Jay is preferring Barklay to her, the whole premise falls apart for me, and what you're left with is a "reality-like" show trying to be a goofy, slapstick farce and failing miserably.... See More

Hey, not the end of the world... other great shows like Arrested Development had their share of weak episodes. Hmm, now I've scared myself... it would be a nightmare if MF followed AD into the sunset as yet another great comedy cancelled far too early!

Please, writers... don't get lazy! Play to your cast & format's many strengths, instead of hamstringing them with plots & gags better suited to other shows' formats. Just because those other shows are funny in their own way doesn't mean you can imitate them on MF and have it still be funny.

A.Lindsey said...

Okay Alan, finally you force me to speak up! May I add that I am a loyal fan of The St Louis Post-Dispatch's Gayle Pennington--she is a co-worker and friend (who finally suggested I tune in after my many Mad Men comments left her exhausted and you simply have the most comprehensive Mad Men coverage).

So, my question is...think much? How can you allow your concern over M.F. making a poor use of their documentary status to overshadow the magnificance of this show! It is intelligent while being silly...almost an impossible feat. Fun, lighthearted and not at all pretentious. It doesn't care to be defined and that is not only why it's so good, but why it strives to be an adult slapstick comedy.

Each episode is better than the last so why are we spending time analyzing? Simply enjoy this show that strives to make us laugh out loud--there aren't many that have the same esteem! Slang summary, cut 'em some slack. Describing why you found a porn girl hot to your tiny kid (when he meant hot as in the weather)? Gloria being freaked out by that dog? The guys impersonasion of the dog's Brittish accentted monologue--priceless! I keep rewinding and rewinding and rewinding!

Tyro.k.y said...

My biggest problem with the show is that the family is pretty freaking rich.

Additionally, they should explore different environments more - kids school, work places, the city/town.

Tully Moxness said...

I have a question concerning the kid actors. I've noticed that some of them disappear for an entire episode while the others are all still there. This week was Manny's turn. Is there a method or system that the producers have to follow that is dictated by network practices, or are there other circumstances that lead to this? It was very glaring this week, since you thought Manny was supposed to be in the episode going to the marionette show; the explanation, or non-explanation, for his not going made his absence from the episode even more obvious. Any ideas?

Unknown said...

I have a question concerning the kid actors. I've noticed that some of them disappear for an entire episode while the others are all still there. This week was Manny's turn. Is there a method or system that the producers have to follow that is dictated by network practices, or are there other circumstances that lead to this?

I would assume it has to do with either:

a.) Saving money by not using all actors in every episode

b.) Work hours for children. I don't know the specifics but I know productions have juggled around ways to schedule for children actors.

TXCaddyKing said...

When Jay was fixing the dog the first time and he had him up against the table was great. My wife did not understand why I was laughing until I made her rewatch it. The little things are what makes this show great.
I don't care if this is a documentary or mocumetary. It is funny. I don't care if my laughs come from something that makes sense or not. One of the funniest TV characters ever was Uncle Ruckus from Boondocks. He was an old black man who hated black people and loved Ronald Reagan.

sanjay said...

I'm surprised this show is still getting the enormous praise that it does. Don't get me wrong, I like the show and make sure to watch it every time it is on, but it just feels too contrived and only a few performances are noteworthy. Julie Bowen offers nothing to the show and neither do the kids. Honestly, I would be more satisfied with a show just about Mitchell and Cameron.

Nat said...

I didn't think that this wasn't the best episode they've done either. It was funny, just not side splittingly.
Still good though.

I agree with Steve Levitan that the families shouldn't mix together all the time. They all have families with different things going on and they won't always be able to meet up as a big group. This is especially true of the Dunphy's who have older children who will be off doing their own thing. That does make it harder for Cameron and Mitchell though admittedly. I do like the episodes where there are different combination's of the family, like when Manny and Claire had a heart-to-heart and Gloria and Alex had lunch whilst shopping.

For Tully I think its just that the kid actors have limited working hours,(labour laws etc) so its probably easier to have them out of an episode altogether, so they can be heavily featured in another.