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How Modern Family changed American television

When Modern Family won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, I was livid. A derivative show which mashed the mocumentary-style of The Office up with the formulaic family sitcom (a la Everybody Loves Raymond), I couldn’t see how it could it could possibly rank as more “outstanding” than Glee, another nominee in its first season which revolutionized what we thought television could be. Inclusive, ingenious, and in more than one way groundbreaking, Ryan Murphy’s dramedy about a misfit show was far more deserving than yet another show about a (mostly) white upper-middle-class family.

I still think Glee deserved the 2010 Emmy, but having watched Modern Family over the years, my opinion of it as “trite and derivative” has changed. As the sitcom aired its series finale last night, I began to consider its place in the annals of television history. Far from being just another boring sitcom about rich white people, I have come to appreciate that, in its own quiet yet hilarious way, Modern Family helped pave the way for more diverse representations of American families. Indeed, it challenged the notion of what “family” even is in modern America.

Back in 2009, when both Glee and Modern Family debuted, they were notable for including two types of characters up to that point rarely seen in American scripted television: gay me and Latinas. For Glee, this was central to the show’s identity from the very first episode. Inclusion became its raison d’etre. Sometimes that felt heavy-handed, but even when it was more subtle, the writers were loud and proud about their intention to make sure this show represented as many people as possible.

Modern Family took a more subtle, but no less effective, approach. The first episode centers in part around gay couple Mitch and Cam revealing that they have adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. The reveal—in which Cam (played hilariously by Eric Stonestreet) holds up his daughter, Lily, under a spotlight as “Circle of Life” blasts over his home sound system—is both gut-busting hilarious and incredibly moving. It is also very, very camp—a trope the show never shied away from but never exploited.

Herein lies the beauty of Modern Family. Mitch and Cam are not the sanitized Jack McPhees of Dawson’s Creek nor the one-dimensional stock character of Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland. These characters are gay—they’re written with gay sensibility, they have mostly other gay friends, their cultural references are familiar to any gay man (even if they aren’t always familiar to straight audiences)—but they aren’t defined exclusively by their sexuality. Like many real gay men, they both embrace some things which would be considered “stereotypical” (a love of show tunes, matching silk robes, Cam’s flair for the dramatic) but also defy them (Cam is an ex-football player and current coach; Mitch has a dry wit and low tolerance for tomfoolery).

The show was perhaps less successful in avoiding stereotypes with Gloria (Sofia Vergara), the beautiful Latina and second wife of Pritchard family patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill). Many jokes in the early years revolved around the other, white characters’ inability to understand her accent, her supposed criminal past in Columbia, and relied on objectifying her in some ways which, only a decade later, feel incredibly sexist and dated. Yet Gloria was mostly treated by the writers and therefore the other characters as an integral part of the family. When she was portrayed as an outsider, it was usually alongside Cam and Phil (Ty Burrell), the other characters who had married into the family.

She, too, developed into a more complex and interesting character than the stock character of the fiery Latina she might have been in less able hands. Because of this, Modern Family was able to explore the immigrant experience with compassion and heart, even as immigrants were being vilified by politicians and even the President.

What truly made Mitch, Cam, and Gloria—and by extension, Modern Family—so revolutionary, though, was that they were loved and accepted by their immediate relatives. That dynamic—an extended, blended family consisting of characters diverse both in demographics and personality—was as central to the show as inclusion was to Glee, and it is arguably just as important. It’s hard to quantify just what impact these characters had on American society, but as The Atlantic reported in 2015, some people who previously opposed gay marriage attributed their change of heart to Mitch and Cam.

In that way, at least, the Pritchetts and the Dunphys have left an indelible mark on American society.  They loved one another as much as any family. The show wasn’t always the most innovative, but it was warm, cozy, and often funny, like that Christmas sweater your grandmother knitted you which you pretend to sneer at but secretly wear when the winter is just a little too dark and cold.

The series finale was a fitting coda, as the family moved on, being split across continents and oceans as they all went their seperate ways. Though filmed months before the current pandemic, it felt incredibly prescient watching these characters struggle with the idea that their tight-knit family would be seperated, with no idea when they might again be together. At a time when we all wish we could—but can’t—be with our crazy uncles, uptight sisters, or grumpy grandpas, it was comforting to spend one last night with Family.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

“Roseanne” could be just the show we need – if ABC does it right

AMES MCNAMARA, SARA GILBERT, LAURIE METCALF, EMMA KENNEY, JAYDEN REY, ROSEANNE BARR, MICHAEL FISHMAN, JOHN GOODMAN, LECY GORANSON, SARAH CHALKE

The cast of ABC’s Roseanne, which returns on 27 March

I love Roseanne. A show about a working class white family in downstate Illinois, it has long been one of my favourites. I remember watching it with my family as a child and have seen every episode at least twice as an adult. I can quote many episodes by heart. It spoke to me and my upbringing as a working-class kid in Ohio and Kentucky. In the Conner’s, I saw a reflection of my own family. It’s no surprise then that I was thrilled to hear the show was returning, 20 years after it went off the air.

But Roseanne Barr is a Trump supporter, and as revealed at the Television Critics’ Association up-fronts this week, so now is her character.  “I’ve always tried to have it be a true reflection of the society we live in. Half the people voted for Trump and half didn’t. It’s just realistic,” she said about the decision to have the Conner family split between Hillary and Trump voters, adding (incorrectly) that it was working class white people who elected Trump.

Predictably, this has led many fans of the original series to boycott the reboot. I understand the sentiment. Roseanne’s politics repulse me. If I want to see a Trump apologist I’d turn on Fox News. To say that both Roseanne Barr’s and Roseanne Conner’s support for that sunburnt sasquatch hasn’t diminished my joy and tainted my love for the show would be a lie.

During the show’s first iteration Roseanne Conner was a strident, if unintentional, feminist who broke the mould of what a woman could and should be on TV. She led a union walkout at her factory. She started her own business with her sister, mother, and best friend. She insisted her children not be hampered by gender norms, in one memorable scene telling daughter Darlene that a baseball glove was a girl’s thing if a girl used it.  She dealt with racism, sexism, and domestic violence – both addressing her own physical abuse as a child and her sister Jackie’s abuse by her boyfriend. She had gay and lesbian friends and even threw a same-sex wedding years before the idea gained mainstream acceptance, even amongst gay rights activists.

The Roseanne Conner of yesteryear would never tolerate someone who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. In fact, some of that old progressive spark seems to be alive in the reboot. Sara Gilbert, the openly lesbian actress who plays Darlene, is a producer. Her character’s son, Mark, will be a gender non-conforming boy who wears dresses. And Michael Fishman’s character DJ’s daughter is a Black girl named Mary, after her great-great grandmother. (No word on whether Mary’s mom will appear.)

So it’s hard to see how the character could come to such a wildly different worldview today than she had in 1997. Barr didn’t offer much in the way of explanation at the up-fronts, which leaves a lot of old fans like me very sceptical that this show is going to be anything other than a platform for Barr to espouse her weird conspiracy theories and unabashed support for the orange oppressor.

That the show would tackle Trump is hardly surprising, though. Roseanne takes place in the fictional small town of Lanford, Illinois – an exurb of Chicago smack dab in the middle of the Rust Belt. It’s this region of the country which seems to be the strongest bastion of Trump support (it was certainly the region that handed him the White House), and a lot of the issues the series dealt with in the 1980s and 1990s – low and stagnant wages, factory closings, un- and underemployment, community blight – are issues which many more communities in the Great Lakes states are experiencing today.

It’s easy to believe most people in Lanford would be Trump voters. Indeed, when announcing the return of the series last year, ABC President Channing Dungey said she wanted to “bring back a point of view that has really been missing on the air,” citing Trump voters as the show’s target demographic. What better family to speak to the white working class than the iconic Conner clan? I doubt they’re watching shows like Fresh of the Boat or blackish. And the Conners are the antithesis of the Pritchetts and Dunphys on Modern Family.

So ABC has brought back the Conners, which by all reports is a family divided. Word out of the TCA up-front is that Jackie (played by the remarkable Laurie Metcalfe) hasn’t spoken to her sister Roseanne in a year because of the latter’s support for Trump. (Stills released by the network show Jackie dressed in a “nasty woman” shirt and pink pussy hat.) Far be it from me to argue this isn’t realistic or relevant. I’ve written about my own feuding family a couple times, including how I haven’t spoken to my sister since the 2016 election. There’s artistic merit in exploring this critical moment in our history with a sitcom, much like Norman Lear did with the Vietnam War in All in the Family.

Of course, loveable bigot Archie Bunker always got his comeuppance and frequently realised he was on the wrong side of history. My fear, though, is that the Conners are going to be used by Barr to excuse the bigotry latent in support for Trump. You must tolerate and to a degree embrace the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia of Donald Trump to vote for and continue to support him. That’s going to have to be addressed if this show is going to retain any credibility and not turn into straight-up Trumpist propaganda.