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Sunday, September 29, 2013

"First Days" of New MODERN FAMILY

Article first published as "First Days" of New MODERN FAMILY on TheTVKing.

ABC's Modern Family began its fifth season last night with a pair of fresh episodes, "Suddenly, Last Summer" and "First Days." The first took place in late June, the day gay marriage became legal in California, and also concerned parents trying to get time away from their kids. The second picked up months later, as the children went back to school, and various family members found new professional opportunities.

It's cool that Modern Family celebrates the recognition of legal gay marriage. The show has authentically shown a loving, committed homosexual couple, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), for years. It feels very natural for Mitch and Cam to want to wed as soon as they can, since their union is not recognized by their state, and that they would both try to propose right away once they had the right to follow through on the promise.

That being said, "Suddenly, Last Summer" isn't just a commentary on social justice; it also stays true to the humorous content of the show, with Mitchell and Cam both ruining one another's surprises, wanting to be the first to ask. Even the emotional moment at the end of the show, when they both say "yes" at the same time without asking the question, is both heartfelt and amusing. A+ job on this plot. I can't wait to see the ceremony itself!

It's great that all of Mitchell's adult family members pitched in to help with the failed proposals, showing their support for their loved ones, but I was displeased with the running gag that baby Joe puked whenever gay marriage is mentioned. I suppose this could be taken two different ways, one of which is saying that those who are against extending civil rights to homosexuals are babies, but it just doesn't feel that way to me. This is probably a personal taste thing, though, so it's hard to criticize the show for it too harshly.

Also great in "Suddenly, Last Summer" is Jay (Ed O'Neill) seeking a break from Manny (Rico Rodriguez). The Jay story isn't so much about him wanting Manny to go away as it is Jay wanting to avoid a bunch of Columbian relations in his house, but he doesn't stop to think about Manny as he's pushing the boy towards the plane. This makes his sorrow when he misses Manny all the better, and delivers an emotional gut-check to the end of the episode.

Similarly, Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) try to schedule time away from their three children, working to synchronize schedules of the trio. I was particularly impressed with Phil, showing more willingness to manipulate his kids than usual, giving him another welcome layer. But the best part comes when the adults also try to ditch each other, proving everyone needs time alone no matter how much they love their family. They deserve the respite.

It's this realistic take on what a family is, with plenty of laughs that actually land tossed in, that makes Modern Family so successful, even after five seasons. In a year when every network is tossing family-based comedies on the air, this one remains the current standard to live up to, something the newbies are by and large failing to match. The timing and punchlines are consistent, and the actors, writers, directors, and the rest are extremely talented.

It's a shame the series skips ahead so far for "First Days," though not unexpected, as most broadcast series don't cover the summer months, when they are off the air. This means we don't see the results of the machinations and plans in the prior half hour, though that is frequently the case with Modern Family episodes, which tend to stand alone. This lack of many through arcs, though there are admittedly some, is the one glaring flaw in the show's makeup.

I liked "First Days" a lot less than "Suddenly, Last Summer." The reason is because Modern Family threw reality out the door for a gag in a couple of spots. Haley (Sarah Hyland) acts a complete fool when Mitchell's rich boss (Justin Kirk, Weeds) wants to whisk her away. This is not in character for Haley, whom we haven't seen caring about money or much older men before, and makes the viewer grimace as much as Mitchell does at the prospect.

Even worse is Cam's story, in which he is asked to take over an AP History course. Cam has no qualifications in History. In the real world, this means he can sub in the classroom, but not take over full-time. To portray a school as trying to hire someone who hasn't had educational training and gone through the long, complex process to become a teacher is offensive. There are exceptions to the typical teacher college track, but they are few and far between, and certainly do not apply in the circumstances depicted here. Ridiculous.

Now, Cam eventually accepting the gym teacher / coaching position, and the music instructor last year, is a little more believable, as they are not core subjects, but again, while he could possibly be hired on as a coach without a teaching license, physical education and music education are not jobs just anyone can do. It's a lot harder the most people would assume, and most states do require a specific license in those fields, as well as earning a Master's degree within the first decade of teaching.

My big problem with these stories is that they perpetuate a myth about teaching as a career. In an age where state governments can strip teachers of union rights and the media shows people talking about how teachers get "paid too much," no more bad images are needed. Teaching is a tough job with long hours and stringent higher education requirements that continue through one's entire career these days. Teachers get paid far less than the normal professional with a Master's degree, though a Master's is required most places to teach for more than a handful of years, and those who go into it work very hard for little material reward. Seeing this kind of thing on TV, trivializing the profession, hurts real, working individuals, and is a big pet peeve of mine.

Other than that, though, and I know that section is a big joy-suck, I enjoyed the episode. Phil and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) hanging out in the background of a commercial was amusing, Clarie's first day working for her dad went so wrong it felt right, and the kids starting school worked out well.

I also applaud Modern Family for finally updating their opening title sequence. They changed Mitch and Cam's section when Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) was recast two years ago, but the rest have remained the same since the first episode. Luke (Nolan Gould) and Alex (Ariel Winter), in particular, have changed in appearance over this past year, so it was definitely time.

Modern Family airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

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