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Emmys 2012: ‘Modern Family’ Spell Won’t Be Broken Anytime Soon. And That’s Okay

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Sep 24, 2012 | 2:45pm EDT

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Modern Family EmmysTake a look at any post-Emmys content from the past two ceremonies – 2011 and 2012 – and you’ll notice a pattern: a glaring distaste for the undeniable dominance of ABC’s Modern Family. “How could they steal that Emmy from Parks and Recreation?!” “Why didn’t Girls win? It’s so much more original!” “Does Eric Stonestreet really need two trophies?” “Julie Bowen again?! [Scoffs]” It’s a veritable mine field of Modern Family complaints out there, but as we established last week, Modern Family has earned that spot at the top, whether we like it or not. And now that the comedy has won three consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys, it’s officially reached streak status. And, as was the case with Frasier and 30 Rock before it, it’s going to take something incredible to dethrone it.

When Frasier was at the top of the Emmy heap – a good five-year period from 1994 to 1998 – the ceremony could have been easily renamed The Frasier Awards (sound familiar, Modern Family dissenters?). David Hyde Pierce and Kelsey Grammer have got sets of Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy and Outstanding Actor in a Comedy statues – which comes in handy when you need the security of a spare Emmy. It took the likes of Ally McBeal, an offbeat legal dramedy made legendary for its numerous and often mind-boggling pop culture contributions, and later Will & Grace, with its open, primetime celebration of the gay lifestyle in a landscape that was widely ignorant, to stop the Frasier streak. Later, NBC’s TV-loving sitcom 30 Rock enjoyed the success of three years as the Outstanding Comedy Champion until newcomer (at the time) Modern Family usurped its political-reference-laden throne.

Now that Modern Family has joined Frasier and 30 Rock’s little club, we may be able to gain a little insight into what keeps them there and what put them there in the first place. While 30 Rock and Modern Family do run concurrently, they have the least in common. 30 Rock rakes in lower audiences – even in its heyday, it was hovering between 6 and 8 million viewers, numbers first-place networks balk at – and it garnered a great deal of its appeal from the fame of its two stars: Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. The humor wasn’t necessarily family-friendly, and the scripts were filled with rapid-fire references. It was, however, a show about making television, which is exactly what most Emmy voters do or used to do. 30 Rock was primed for that crowd.

Frasier, however, was an interesting specimen. It was a spinoff, which should have given it a black mark, but didn't, thanks to its originality and multi-faceted appeal. The series had its rock in Grammer, who brought Dr. Frasier Crane over from classic sitcom (and fellow Emmy bait) Cheers; it had its edge its high-brow, hoighty-toighty subject matter to elevate its level of discourse; and it had its Joe Schmo, family-friendly comfort zone thanks to Frasier’s father and his irresistible little dog, Eddie. With that, it snagged us all: old, young, stubborn, elitist, family-minded. We all flocked to Frasier on NBC’s Must See TV lineup, and the Emmys simply trailed along after us. That is what Modern Family is accomplishing in its big moment.

Still, it’s not strange for TV fans to be aggravated by something so mainstream getting a pat on the back for being, well, so mainstream, especially when fringe dramas are the Emmys’ bread and butter. Homeland EmmysEverything nominated in 2012, from Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad to Mad Men and the winner, Homeland, is high in buzz and low in ratings. When we’re seeing a niche drama get its due praise while smaller comedies like Girls go unrewarded in the face of Modern Family’s ubiquity, fans can’t help but feel a little cheated on behalf of their favorite shows. But they shouldn’t. The fact is, Comedy and Drama on television are two very different ballgames.

According to media scholar and professor of television and pop culture at Sycracuse University, Robert Thompson, it’s not about size, it’s about which playing fields are better suited to each genre. “[Drama] desperately needs the candor and frankness when it comes to sexuality and violence and that kind of thing and the networks are having a harder time doing that,” he says. 

Because of FCC regulations and stricter standards, we simply won’t see drama that hits as hard on CBS as we will on AMC or HBO. It simply isn’t available to the networks. “If you’re a network and decided to do a series about the mafia, why bother? You can’t do the kinds of things or have those people talking the way they would and doing the things that they would,” Thompson adds. 

In other words, no Mafia leader is going to tell you you’re “freaking” dead. In fact, that’s what Emmy voter and finals judge Richard Dobin told Hollywood.com at nominations time: “The stuff that happens on cable is richer and therefore a better audience experience,” he said. The upper cable networks may not enjoy the audiences that networks like ABC and CBS see regularly, but they’re simply a better place for drama. Numbers have nothing to do with it.

Comedy, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. “Reality and Comedy are two of the things that network TV can still do, even with its content limitations,” Thompson says. Just because comedy certainly benefits from the freedom of no network constraints doesn’t mean it needs that freedom. Whereas the opening of the drama circle that includes HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX actually crushes the networks' abilities to compete in the more serious genre, cable’s uptick in great comedy only widens the playing field, morphing the definition of “great comedy” into a subject with kaleidoscopic range. It makes sense then, that when awarding the “best” of the year’s comedies, Academy voters look to shows like Modern Family, whose appeal is the widest without losing its topical nature and quality of writing.

“It pulls off something that is almost impossible to pull off today, which is to have a program that is both hip and funny and enjoyable by adults and college students for that matter, but that also is pretty much family-friendly across the board,” Thompson says. And it’s true — Modern Family appeals to everyone. Young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican (just ask President Obama and Ann Romney, both of whom have professed their love for the series in the past). Like Frasier, it doesn’t stray too far from a sitcom format with which most folks are comfortable (though it can certainly thank The Office for paving the mockumentary way); it’s consistently filled with jokes that hit a variety of comprehension levels, from slapstick to topical jokes to the simplicity of a good mind-boggling juxtaposition; plus, it’s got a character for folks at every stage of life to relate to. And then there’s intangible element that so often goes along with a big sitcom: All these elements make Modern Family, as Thompson calls it, “old-fashioned,” akin to greats like The Cosby Show and All in the Family.

Modern Family EmmysNaturally, besting a show with this many Emmy magnets on its side isn’t going to be easy, so get your sighs and scoffs out now: It’s looking like we’ll be living in Modern Family-land for at least a little while longer. Looking at the scope of new and emerging shows this fall, there are a few gems, but none poised to take the TV world by storm the way Modern Family’s surprisingly poignant and funny first season did. Go On has got the funny and a little of the heart; The New Normal has the sweet family stuff down pat and a little star power to bring it along; Ben and Kate has powerful elements of sweetness coupled with a dash of absurdity, as does the excellent New Girl, which stole our hearts last season. None of these newer series, however, packs quite the punch that a behemoth like Modern Family can. They’re all great in their own ways, but they’re miles away from becoming the next Friends or Frasier. They simply aren’t built to cast as wide of a net as the Dunphy-Pritchett clan can.

Something will best the ABC hit, but it’s not likely to happen in the next year. Unfortunately, that means the Emmys just might continue to bore us for the next few years. But perhaps we’re all missing the point. The Emmys weren’t actually created to entertain us. They were created to reward “excellence” in television, and excellence isn’t exactly something you can measure in a graph or chart. Thompson says the Emmys are simply a reflection of what the majority of people in the television industry regard as “excellent,” and clearly, they’re sold on Modern Family. “That’s interesting – that doesn’t mean the award should go away, but it’s not like science has been applied to this stuff,” he says.

What we need to realize is that the Emmys aren’t the only measure by which a series can be considered “good” or even “great.” It’s simply a great, shiny measure we all happen to watch on TV every year. And like any good show, it has the ability to stir up drama in even the unlikeliest of situations: like when even a lovely little family-oriented show winning another award merits our unrelenting ire.

Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler

[Photo Credits: Getty Images; ABC; Showtime]

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