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First comes love. Then comes cohabitation. Then comes an adopted baby in a baby carriage. And then there’s a same-sex marriage, thanks to the California Supreme Court.
But that’s only part of the family dynamic on display in Modern Family. The much-lauded ABC show (it has taken home 22 Emmys, including five straight Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series between 2010 and 2014), done in a quasi-documentary format, focuses on three interrelated West Coast 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 son Joseph.
Jay’s two grown children, Claire and Mitchell, have their own families. Claire is married to a well-meaning goofball (Phil), and together they nurtured three kids in the show’s most traditional representation of a nuclear family—and in its most laughably chaotic.
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 husband, Cameron.
It’s all an expression of what ABC believes a “modern family” is all about, and the results are both bitter and sweet … funny and sobering.
While we see the love and affection that these parents have for their kids and for each other, this show can plow through some pretty problematic fields: Sexual double entendres run through episodes like loosed dogs, and many scenes are pitted with mild profanity.
Then there’s the issue of Mitchell and Cameron—a couple of guys 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 early episode, 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.”
‘Course, things are different now, and Mitch and Cam’s relationship has been legally recognized—a real-world sign of the changes this TV show has both chronicled and, perhaps, helped bring about. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about their relationship, ABC tells us. Mitch and Cam 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. Their families have, more or less, come to terms with their homosexuality. And so have this series’ fans.
In 1997, Ellen made huge waves when the titular character came out as a lesbian. Will & Grace, a sitcom based on the friendship of a heterosexual woman and a homosexual man, came out one year later (and is currently enjoying a rebooted run that’s nearly as popular now as it was the first time around). Both shows created quite a stir—gaining notoriety for their simple “gayness.” Both, in their own ways, pandered and felt self-conscious.
Now, many TV 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 several 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 primetime 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. And that’s now even more true 10 years later.
Mitchell and Cameron are now just part of the landscape. And that says a lot about how TV has changed. About how our whole culture has changed with it and around it.
In Modern Family’s 200th episode, Phil is rushed to the hospital for gallbladder surgery, sending his extended family into a tizzy. Wife Claire struggles to locate the family “surgery bear.” Mitch admits to Cameron that if Cam died, he might marry gay masseuse Caleb (played by Fred Savage). Meanwhile, Gloria tells her and Jay’s son, Joe, that he too will die someday, sending the little guy into a serious funk.
Caleb massages Mitchell, and we see Mitchell repeatedly without a shirt on. When learning that Mitchell has a “crush” on him, Caleb admits that he recently broke up with his own beau and suggests that he can use all the affirmation he can get. Mitchell tells Caleb (thinking he’s talking with Cam) to forget the rest of the massage, get some wine and go to the bedroom. Cam and Mitchell go to the bedroom as well (with Mitchell pouring some wine and saying he wants to do something “s-wrong”), and they find Caleb in bed in his underwear. After an awkward conversation, it’s clear that Caleb’s interested in a threesome: Cam and Mitchell boot Caleb out. Cam and Mitchell kiss twice.
A comment by Claire suggests she found porn in one of her children’s rooms. Phil is happily under the influence of opiates before surgery, and gleefully tells anyone who will listen that “they’re going to shave me.” As Gloria talks to Joe about death, she describes some grisly ways in which kids can die: She suggests that one child actually exploded for unknown reasons, though the “nuns said it was from unclean thoughts.” As Gloria drives Phil to the emergency room, he hears what sounds like a harp during a phone conversation. Gloria panics when Phil mentions the harp: “The angels are coming down!” she exclaims. “You cannot have him yet!” she hollers to the heavens.
We hear a reference to “chewable Prozac.” A bedpan is given as a trophy. In flashback, we see Phil trapped in a Porta-Potty: He drops his cell phone in the toilet. Characters drink wine. We hear one “crap” and about five misuses of God’s name.
“The Wedding, Part 1”
It’s the day of Cam and Mitch’s wedding, and they’re awakened in bed by two gay friends bearing breakfast trays. “This can’t be the first time you’ve woken up with other men in your bedroom,” Pepper Saltzman quips. We soon learn that Jay and Mitch are barely speaking because of the wedding. “He doesn’t get gay weddings and I don’t get tracksuits as casualwear,” Mitch says. And when Jay shares his unease with Cam’s dad, the other man says he’s “evolved,” referencing two happy “lesbo swans” in his pond back home.
Lily is squeezed through a dry cleaner’s after-hours drop-off box to retrieve one of her daddy’s tux. Phil and Alex lie to recover a special wedding present. Jay and Gloria accidentally shatter the 48-year-old marriage of Cam’s parents. In flashback, Cam and Mitch’s friend Sal agrees to officiate the wedding and celebrates with a bottle of booze—even though the couple didn’t actually ask. Sal shows up at the wedding very pregnant, though she lies and says she’s only four months along (to keep her new beau on the hook). Gloria mentions that the women in her family sometimes shoot their husbands. Jay says leaving his ex-wife was the “best decision I ever made.” We see towel-draped guys in a sauna. There are references made to sex and genitals. Racism comes up. God’s name is misused a half-dozen times.
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.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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