I’ve decided to write about the ABC comedies separately this week because I couldn’t find any gimmick or theme to shoe-horn them together. And that’s mostly because this week’s episode of Modern Family is definitely the worst episode of the season and probably one of the two or three worst in the series’ short run.
With all comedy, there’s a fine line between humor and offense, and although Modern Family has a somewhat diverse cast of characters, it’s not as if the series is always interested in portraying those diverse characters in complex ways. A lot of times, Cameron and Mitchell act fairly stereotypically as middle America expects them to as gay men, same goes for Gloria as a Columbian woman. Yeah, there are multiple episodes that maybe work against or at least attempt not to reinforce dominant tropes, but at the end of the day, Modern Family is a mainstream family sitcom and so it’s not particularly interested in subversion as it is in the appearance of subversion.
Most of the time, I’m fine with that. The series is often funny and very, very rarely offensive. “Unplugged,” on the other hand, is not funny and actually fairly offensive.
Listen, I totally understand the premise in having Cam and Mitchell trying to get Lily into preschool and realizing that as a gay couple with a minority baby, they’re at the top of the list for admission. That’s an acknowledgment of something that seems to be real in our culture and the first beats in that story are fine. But as the episode moves along and the two start to use their lifestyle as a way to get ahead, become fairly angry and mean towards a disabled lesbian, bi-racial couple with an adopted baby of their own AND THEN have Cam go back to the racial insensitivity well, it’s just all too much.
Each of those elements and beats on their own aren’t too troublesome, but put together in an already clichéd and annoying storyline makes for a generally horrible representation of Cam and Mitchell. I’m someone could even do a reading of Cameron’s accidental racism as some sort of “othering,” because though he’s gay and the series wants us to accept that — and we rightfully should — making him consistently fall into racist jokes or representations allows those who don’t agree with his lifestyle feel more comfortable with disliking him. Of course, there’s a good chance that people who don’t like homosexuals also don’t like other races, but there’s definitely something odd going on there that rises above the comedy.
Same goes for Gloria’s nationality and connection to her Columbian heritage. The series has used it as a launching pad for jokes often and sometimes, like earlier this season when she made Jay do all these goofy things for making fun of her customs, it’s funny. Here, where Jay and ultimately Manny are scared of Gloria because in her culture it’s a regular thing to kill rats and other vermin with shovels and just move on with your day, so they assume she’s done the same thing to the annoying neighbor dog, it’s largely offensive and unfunny.
I understand that part of the “interesting” dynamic between Jay and Gloria is that he is an old bigot and she’s from a different culture, but as some point, the series needs to go to another well for their stories. And even if that is the regular dynamic between the two of them, Jay should know his wife better than this or at least not walk around the house as if he’s terrified of her. The whole storyline plays too closely to the savaging of Gloria and her culture and both Jay and Manny’s constant distrust of Gloria is insulting and far from funny.
Finally, though far from racially offensive, the Dunphy’s story is offensive in its lack of humor. The set-up of no technology for a week is a good one, but then the episode does nothing with it. The beats play out with little humor or intrigue and then it just falls apart at the end with Phil and Claire telling Hayley she doesn’t get a car, the end. Um, okay?
Maybe I’m being too hard on Modern Family, but if it’s going to be the most popular comedy on television, it needs to be a little more responsible and should probably realize that just because it has lead characters that are gay or of another race, doesn’t mean that’s all the work it has to do in representing diversity.