Not a “Modern Family” At All

Claremont, CA. ABC’s hit series “Modern Family” has returned to the air for its second season.

It’s the “modern” elements of the “Modern Family” that you’re supposed to notice right away. The family patriarch, Jay, has divorced his children’s mother and is married to a much younger Colombian woman named Gloria. Gloria has her own son from a previous marriage, Manny. Jay’s own children – Claire and Mitchell – are grown and have households of their own. Claire is married with three children. Mitchell, who is gay, lives with his partner Cameron and their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.

So we have divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and homosexual parents, international adoption, and multiculturalism. We’ve got, in other words, what we like to call diversity. And all this modern diversity provides much of the show’s comic traction, whether it’s Mitchell and Cameron trying not to act “too gay” at their daughter’s toddler class or Jay’s evident discomfort when Manny wants to wear his Colombian poncho on the first day of school.

And yet I’m struck, over and over again, by how unmodern – or at least how atypical, by contemporary American standards – this family is.

To begin with, the entire family lives in the same town. The three generations spend lots of time together, at barbeques and birthday parties and children’s sporting events. There’s a lot of “day-to-day grandparenting,” precisely the kind of grandparenting that few American children ever experience.

Moreover, in each of the (very well-appointed) households there is at least one parent who stays home with the children. Jay is retired, and Gloria doesn’t work. Both Cameron and Claire gave up their jobs to raise kids full-time. This is in stark contrast to the contemporary reality, in which families with one “stay-at-home” parent are a distinct minority.

It’s worth emphasizing the numbers here: just two of the six adults on “Modern Family” have income-producing jobs. And Phil, who is a real-estate broker, must have some kind of preternatural skill at real-estate brokering because he spends almost all his time at home. Only Mitchell, a lawyer, has ever complained that he has to spend more time at work than he’d like – and even so, his job has not required him to move away from his hometown, spend lots of time on the road, or even commute a moderate distance.

By any metric, this family is almost completely insulated from the dominant realities of modern American life. They are all wealthy, living in big southern California houses (each of which would probably cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars, even in this post-bubble housing market), and yet they do not require dual incomes to sustain the luxuries of their existence. No one seems worried about the economy; no one has to put their children in day care; and no one finds it all that hard to spend time and cultivate relationships with their extended family.

It’s more of a modern fantasy than a modern family, the “Leave It To Beaver” of our age.

Clearly, the conceit of the show is that family remains family, and family is about love, no matter how many ethnicities and sexual identities it involves. In the most basic ways, “Modern Family” is a classic, feel-good sitcom. Many if not most of the episodes begin with some sort of comic tension and end with the family members coming together, hugging, and professing their love for each other.

I enjoy “Modern Family” a great deal. And yet I can’t help thinking, every time I watch the show, how nice it would be if the only things that made for a modern family – and the only things that troubled modern American families – were the kinds of features that define this family. But the sad truth is that this is a family that is wholly unrepresentative of contemporary American life.

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