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Modern Family: The Election Episode

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I don't live inside the Beltway and consequently I do not have to adhere to the local laws requiring me to predict the election. But I am only three miles outside of it, so making a prediction is hard to resist.

Everyone around here uses his own criteria. Some use hard economic numbers. Some use the World Series winner. Me? I use television. More specifically, I use Modern Family.

Most people assume the "modern" in Modern Family results from the three types of families blended together in the show. There are the traditional Dunphys, the rich-older-man/hot-young-wife Pritchetts and the gay couple with the adopted ethnic daughter, just referred to as Cam and Mitch. The subject matter, particularly as it relates to Cam and Mitch, does feel rather modern, but it isn't especially revolutionary. In the thirty years since Tony Randall's Sidney Shore caused network execs intense heartburn by being kinda-sorta gay, the doors to that closet (at least on network television) have pretty much been broken open. In fact, it's the Dunphys that are the anomaly on popular networks television today. Family sitcoms once were the norm. They aren't anymore.

But I think the most "modern" thing about Modern Family is its structure. Modern Family is one of the rare successful television comedies that does not have a clear star (either an individual or couple). It is a true ensemble.

If you think that is not revolutionary, think again. The American narrative has been centered on the individual. Read Mark Twain. Watch John Wayne. Our myths are about the "man" (great or little) standing up to the forces that oppress him and triumphing. Sometimes the narrative centers on a couple. But it very rarely centers on a group. That's what they do in Europe. That's what they do in ... socialist societies.

American sitcoms are about Lucy or Archie, Cliff Huxtable or Liz Lemon. They may have had great supporting characters, but the leadership is always clear. Ralph Kramden did not share top billing with Ed Norton, just as Jerry Seinfeld didn't cede the top spot to Kramer. But on Modern Family, all six of the adult characters, and perhaps a few of the kids, are as equal as the characters in Gorky.

Modern Family didn't instigate this cultural shift all by itself. Friends was a hugely successful show in which six characters were roughly equal. And Friends seems to have been the progenitor of almost every new sitcom that gets trotted out in 2012. But to me, Modern Family has gone much further. Friends was initially conceived of as an ensemble with one character, Courteney Cox's Monica, at the center. (In much the same way that Bea Arthur's Dorothy was at the center of The Golden Girls). As Jennifer Aniston became a bigger and bigger star, her character Rachel became dominant. The others had plenty to do, but when most people think of Friends today, I suspect they think of the Rachel-Ross storyline first and foremost. Can you think of a dominant character or storyline on Modern Family?

And this, I contend, is big. Because this isn't the way we Americans have traditionally told our stories. This is what the Russians do. It's what the French do. It's the difference between Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game and Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Renoir's story was about a group. Welles focused on the man.

And so to my prediction. I know from watching Fox News that President Obama intends to lead us on a path toward socialism based on a European model so anathema to our traditional values. But I know from watching ABC that we are as good as there already. Therefore, unless there's a miracle before election day and Tim Allen's good old-fashioned, hero-centric show Last Man Standing displaces Modern Family, I predict President Obama will be re-elected, and we will see a whole lot more ensemble television shows in our future.