First comes love. Then comes marriage … or homosexual cohabitation, as the case may be. Then comes an adopted baby in a baby carriage. But that's only part of the family dynamic on display in Modern Family. The much-lauded ABC show, done in a quasi-documentary format, focuses on three interrelated California families, loosely helmed by patriarch Jay Pritchett. Married to Gloria Delgado, a woman many years (generations?) his junior, Jay alternately puts up with and dotes on stepson Manny, and will soon welcome into the world his and Gloria's new baby.
Jay's two grown children, Claire and Mitchell, are both raising families of their own. Claire is married to a well-meaning goofball (Phil), and together they cluelessly raise three kids in the show's most traditional representation of a nuclear family—but it's the most laughably chaotic, too.
Mitchell, on the other hand, has been crafted to demonstrate what love, support, rationality and good judgment look like … as he nurtures an adopted child (Lily) with his homosexual partner, Cameron.
It's all an expression of what ABC believes a "modern family" is all about, and the results are both bitter and sweet. While we see the love and affection parents have for their kids—and for each other—the show can plow through some pretty problematic fields: Sexual double entendres run through episodes like loosed dogs, and many episodes are pitted with mild profanity.
Then there's the issue of Mitchell and Cameron—a couple who seem to simultaneously embody and refute gay stereotypes. In one episode, Cam gets upset because most of their friends and family see him as the "mother" of the couple. In another, when he's worried Lily might say an embarrassing word at a wedding, he suggests they beg out of the thing, saying they're not attending any weddings until homosexuals get equal rights.
"Oh, we're political now?" Mitchell says. "We leave town on Gay Pride weekend because we don't like the traffic."
It's interesting to note how natural their relationship appears to be—presented as nothing other than normal and acceptable. They merely want to be great parents to their adopted girl, and they try to support each other as best they can through life's trials and tribulations.
Those small facts speak to how much television has changed in our lifetimes.
In 1997, Ellen made huge waves when the titular character came out as a lesbian. Will & Grace, a sitcom based on the relationship between a heterosexual woman and a homosexual man, came out one year later. Both shows created quite a stir—gaining notoriety for their simple "gayness." Both, in their own ways, pandered and felt self-conscious.
Now, series routinely feature homosexual characters—so often, in fact, that not much is made of it. A recent study by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation suggests that people's attitudes toward homosexuality have become more favorable in the last five years. And a third of those surveyed said their attitude shift was due, in large part, because of the positive gay characters found on the tube.
"As the networks gradually add characters from all backgrounds and all walks of life to prime-time programming, more and more Americans are seeing their LGBT friends and neighbors reflected on the small screen," GLAAD president Neil Giuliano told USA Today in 2008.
Mitchell and Cameron, then, are now just part of the landscape. And that says a lot not just about how TV has changed, but also how it—by presenting shows like Modern Family—has helped normalize homosexuality.
Phil and Claire are forced to bail Haley, their now college-age daughter, out of jail for underage drinking, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. (She accidentally fell on a cop while trying to run from a party.) Initially, she tries to insist that she's the victim (everyone was drinking and running, she says) until she's given a stern talking-to by her parents, whereupon she takes responsibility for her actions … and turns her disciplinary hearing into a mini-confessional. She ends up getting kicked out of school.
That positive act of consequence-laced repentance is complemented by Gloria saying, "Making a child is the easy part. The hard part is everything that comes after." And we even hear some thought-inspiring references to the influence of entertainment.
But we also hear jokes about bribing law officials, telescopic uteruses, suicide, sex and a prostitution scandal. Haley wears a short, revealing dress, and Gloria has on a negligee. Luke's hospital gown opens in the front, revealing his privates to the folks around him. ("I don't want people to see my butt," he says.) Cam and Mitchell wake up in bed together.
Gloria and Jay's ex-wife push and fight (in flashback). Cam lies (again) to cover up stuff. Jay drinks something alcoholic. Characters say "h‑‑‑" two or three times, "d‑‑n" and "jeez" once each, and God's name as an exclamation a half-dozen times. There's one obvious allusion to the f-word.
"Little Bo Bleep"
Toddler Lily learns the f-word, much to Mitchell's shock and Cameron's not-so-secret amusement. "You know I have two weaknesses," Cam says. "Children cussing and old people rapping." Lily likes to make her father happy, so when she serves as a flower girl and sees Cam start to cry (he always weeps at weddings), she blurts out the word several times to cheer him up—making the rest of the congregation laugh uproariously.
The word is bleeped and Lily's mouth is pixelated, and actress Aubrey Anderson-Emmons reportedly said "fudge" on the set. Writers defended the inclusion, saying most families go through something similar. Perhaps that's true. But the show's takeaway lesson is this: It's funny when little kids swear.
As much attention as the obscenity received, it was no more problematic than Claire's debate for a town council seat. Her opponent brings up the time when Phil got arrested for sneaking into a woman's hotel room, undressing and lying seductively on the bed. (He had thought he was in Claire's room.) The ensuing dialogue includes references to infidelity and Phil's sexual prowess/endowments.
Elsewhere, Jay and Gloria fear that their dog may be suicidal. And Gloria, who wears low-cut dresses, reveals a bit of her underwear when she dives into a pool to save the mutt. Children treat parents disrespectfully. Besides Lily's seven swears, characters say "b‑‑tard" and misuse God's name.
Mitchell and Cameron argue about Mitchell's hesitancy to receive Cam's public kisses. And at a family dinner, Mitchell dodges yet another kiss from Cam. Mitchell blames his squeamishness on Jay, who says his lack of affection was because his dad never displayed any. Jay gives Mitchell a fatherly kiss. Then Mitchell and Cameron kiss onscreen.
As a parallel, 13-year-old Alex's older sister, Haley, suggests that a boy Alex has been texting will think she's a lesbian because they haven't kissed. So Alex offers to kiss him—and his soccer team hears about it. She's mortified and decides not to go through with it.
Claire doesn't want her daughters to repeat her mistakes, and that good intent leads her to lie to them. She insists kids shouldn't know about parental mistakes; instead, parents should present an idealized image. Haley, Claire's daughter, doesn't believe Mom was that ideal, though. And, eventually, Claire tells Alex that she did make a mistake as a teen (involving swimming in her underwear) that damaged her reputation.
Gloria believes her deceased grandmother is present and wants her to embrace traditional Colombian practices. Jay mocks her. Profanities include misuses of God's name and uses of "h‑‑‑." Gloria wears low-cut tops.
"My Funky Valentine"
Phil and Claire spend a night in a hotel pretending to cheat on each other—with each other. The night nearly ends in disaster when Claire, who's naked underneath her trench, gets the coat stuck in an escalator. Jay takes Gloria to a comedy show and is humiliated by the comedian, and Cameron and Mitchell help Manny woo his pint-sized love.
A conversation about sexual massage oils get overheard by kids. Far too slick and "sophisticated" for his own good, a teen boy gives his girlfriend (Phil and Claire's eldest daughter) a huge photo of them lying on a bed together. (He's wearing just a pair of jeans in the shot.) He also tells Claire, "All women should look as tasty as you when they're old." Cameron expresses relief when he learns that Mitchell's shower-time shouting was just him practicing his courtroom speech. Similar sexual allusions abound.
Characters drink whiskey and martinis, misuse God's name a half-dozen times and say "h‑‑‑" once. Cameron dresses up daughter Lily for every holiday, and Mitchell says that he noticed she still had some "Martin Luther King behind her ear" during her last bath—suggesting that Cameron put the girl in black face.
"The Bicycle Thief"
Phil inadvertently swipes somebody's new bike. Manny waits … and waits for his much-idolized dad to pick him up for a trip to Disneyland. And Mitchell and Cameron take baby Lily to her first playdate—joining scads of mothers out with their tykes, too. Mitchell worries about coming across to the other moms as too gay.
The episode ends sweetly enough: When Manny's father skips Disneyland with his son to spend some more time gambling, Jay decides to take the boy himself. "Ninety percent of being a dad is just showing up," he says.
But the story's saddled with sexual double entendres and situations. Example: Phil winds up in the neighborhood femme fatale's bedroom—an innocent act of neighborliness his wife misconstrues. Also present is a bit of foul language and some pretty snide snips. "He keeps us grounded," Gloria says of Manny. "Like fog at an airport," Jay responds.