ABC’s two best comedies enter their second seasons with varying degrees of expectations. With all the critical hype and Emmy validation, Modern Family has been crowned as the new comedy king. Meanwhile, Cougar Town has grown in stature in the eyes of the critical community, but still isn’t seemingly as respected as its lead-in, particularly by audiences. But what’s interesting is that while both series are about dysfunctional families and produced premieres to remind its audiences of that, one is much more interested in manipulating its fans to reach that goal.
Modern Family is funny. There are multiple moments in “The Old Wagon” that I laughed at, and laughed hard, particularly the conversation about masculinity between Cameron and Jay. I know that all comedies can telegraph their jokes, particularly the physical-powered gags. It’s impossible to totally discredit the series or the episode for the Dunphy’s traumatic moments during their picnic or Mitchell’s issues inside the princess’ castle, particularly because those moments are fairly humorous in their own right.
However, combined with the incessant need to manufacture a feeling from the audience and make us feel like we all learned a little something about ourselves and how to relate to our family, “The Old Wagon” comes off as a little full of itself. The whole episode is about nostalgia and spends a good deal of the running time trying to make the audience almost feel nostalgic for last season and not in a “Oh man, I wish this was better way.” Instead, the episode runs through the series’ main gimmicks (most notably with the Dunphy’s insanity) and then caps it all off with an awful transition into preaching. The desire to button every insane situation with a silver lining is grating and the clumsy execution of it in “Old Wagon” suggests to me that Modern Family‘s creative team isn’t interested in fixing that issue. Instead, they want us to remember not only how zany Phil can be, but also how heartfelt every situation is.
While Ryan Murphy and company might be beating down the critics with his little meta commentary at the beginning of Glee‘s premiere, the episode that followed it suggested some changes. Whereas here, Levitan and Lloyd are fine with the status quo and really, really want us to feel the same way.
Meanwhile, Cougar Town, a series that I don’t watch regularly by always enjoy when I do catch it, seems much more willing to explore new beats for its characters. While absolutely nothing has changed on Modern Family, Cougar Town (which completed a nice transition in focus last season) is at least willing to introduce some minor complications for its characters.
“All Mixed Up” sees the characters in the cul-de-sac facing life outside their cozy little set-up. Jules attempts to survive a day without Grayson attached to her hip. Ellie doesn’t like it that Jules is telling all her problems to her kooky shrink Glenn (played by the guesting Jennifer Aniston). Travis gets prepared for his journey to college by having a no-sleeping contest with Laurie. And Andy tries to protect a sign of Jules that keeps getting vandalized.
Just like Modern Family, none of it really goes as planned. But because the cast of Cougar Town has such tremendous chemistry, it feels less gimmicky. These people all feel like real friends, all with a ridiculous co-dependency on one another and goofy games. It’s not that the families on Modern Family don’t feel natural, but the situations they find themselves can sometimes seem contrived. Here, things are played with less of an obnoxious winking feeling and despite all the drinking, there are some real issues being explored.
And when the last five minutes of the episode really hammer home the emotion, it’s less “Look at how we can come together” and more “This is what happens in real life, with people who can really relate with one another.” It’s a very fine line of distinction, but it makes all the difference when it comes to overall impact. I know that both Modern Family and Cougar Town want me to feel something for their characters. But while Modern Family basically tries to force you to feel that way, those emotions exist naturally with Cougar Town.