I’m sure that many of you have a friend or three who you might consider to be close, though you rarely talk or see each other. A friend you grew up with, or your roommate from college, someone who you make little effort to keep up with, besides sporadic Facebook updates. Yet on the rare occasion when you do find time to spend together — a wedding, a reunion, an unexpected visit to his or her resident town — everything flows naturally, as though there was never a break in conversation. I love those friends, who never saddle you with a guilt trip about keeping in contact, who never expect anything, make any demands, or chide you for losing touch. It’s their easygoing nature that makes it so simple to hang out with them, picking up where you left off, and then disappearing for another year or two with next to no contact.
ABC’s “Modern Family” has become the equivalent of that friend for me. You might have noticed that, though it is the second highest-rated sitcom on television, it’s not often talked about anymore. We don’t follow the weekly drama, dissect the meaning in a kiss, or track the development of each characters. That’s because “Modern Family” is not a very exciting show. In fact, after a stellar first two seasons, the show fell into a comfortable, if not monotonous routine, which at first was disappointing, but has since become not worth arguing about. Sure, Haley went to college and got kicked out, and Gloria had a baby, but the beats of “Modern Family” have not changed, nor has the complaisant structure of each episode. We always know what to expect from each episode: Gloria will be loud and shrill; Jay will be grumpy; Manny will annoyingly woo anything that moves; Mitchell and Cameron will squabble over some banal domestic issue; Phil will bumble; Claire will be easily exasperated; Alex will play the role of the smart kid, and Luke will be the dumb goofy one. Sometimes the roles are lightly subverted for comedic effect, but they always amiably return to them by the next episode.
In fact, “Modern Family” has become that show that I watch when I’m avoiding the heavier, serialized dramas, 22-minutes of light decompression, which I’m happy to watch with my wife or alone. Even first-runs are liking watching re-runs, so predictable in their nature, though that is not necessarily to its detriment. I watch for the same reason I used to watch episodes of “Brady Bunch,” “Saved by the Bell,” or “The Addams Family” after school. They give me a moment to get my bearings, soften my brain a little, and relax. With so many increasingly complex dramas and fast-paced sitcoms with a dozen pop-culture riffs a minute, it’s nice not have a few moment when it’s not necessary to catalogue every joke or weigh each plot turn.
I could describe to you last night’s episode of “Modern Family,” but it wouldn’t be that different from describing any other episode. Nothing ever really changes in “Modern Family,” and were you to skip a few episodes, you could jump back into the series without consequence. It is comfortable, insouciant, and familiar. It makes no demands, it asks so very little of us, and yet it delivers each week a B or B+ episode, a few gentle laughs, and an occasionally authentic moment of tenderness. It would seem like an easy show to emulate, but I’m glad that the networks’ efforts to overrun us with imitations has failed because I appreciate “Modern Family” for its unique ability to turn off our brains but never make us feel dumb.