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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

P.c. or not p.c.

There was a brilliant episode of Modern Family on last week. At least it was on here, which is to say, in the UK and Ireland.

People in the U.S. probably saw it a bit sooner since it is, after all, a U.S. TV show. But one of the nice side effects of the explosion of cable and satellite channels is the increase in competition for viewers which leads to broadcasters to pay whatever extra fees they have to in order to be able to show popular foreign programs very soon after they air in their own countries. In the old days, it seemed like you had to wait months or maybe even years to see episodes of American shows here. That still happens with some shows, but the most popular ones (which unfortunately does not always equate to the best ones), like Desperate Housewives and numerous CSI variations, seem to show up within mere weeks or days of their U.S. premieres.

I wasn’t so sure about Modern Family when I first heard about it, about a year ago when it began its first season. The ostensible star is Ed O’Neill, who is a fine actor but who brings memories of Married with Children. I was never a fan of that very successful sitcom, although my parents liked it. It was their sitcom of choice after they had exhausted viewing reruns of I Love Lucy and then Three’s Company. Moreover, the very title Modern Family was discouragingly generic. When the high concept is the title, you are setting people up for a parody or something obvious. Then you get to the premise, which is nothing but schematic. It deals with three households, headed by a man and his two grown children. Each of the sub-families is self-consciously “modern.” O’Neill’s character is (re-)married to a (much younger) Hispanic immigrant. His son is in a same-sex relationship with an adopted Vietnamese baby. His daughter has a “traditional” family, but it is “modern” in that the father is (how to put this?) pretty much totally emasculated.

The way I’ve described it makes Modern Family seem not only schematic but perhaps also rather p.c. And this sums up why I had reservations about this series before I saw it. Now, here is why I had high hopes for it. It was created and mainly written by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not to be confused with the actor), who previously worked together on the under-appreciated short-lived sitcom Back to You. That one was something of an update to the classic Mary Tyler Moore show, in that it told how employees in a local television formed a virtual family. Maybe that wasn’t a coincidence since Christopher Lloyd’s father David won an Emmy writing for that venerable series (“Chuckles Bites the Dust”). Back to You starred Kelsey Grammer, who previously headed the cast of Frasier, on which the younger Lloyd was also a main writer. Clearly, Modern Family has a great writing pedigree. As with Frasier, the clash between generations within a family has a lot to do with the humor.

The writing is clearly Modern Family’s strong suit, featuring much of the irony and comedy of embarrassment that has become a mainstay of TV entertainment thanks to the influence of sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends. The other strength in the series is the cast, many of whom are new to most of us. The standouts are Eric Stonestreet as O’Neill’s gay son-in-law and Ty Burrell (previously the sports guy on Back to You) as O’Neill’s hopeless doofus of a straight son-in-law. But everyone in the cast is solid and very funny. But I don’t have to try to sell this show to anybody because it has already found its audience.

Anyway, the episode I saw last week was very funny and evoked some of the rapier sharp satire of Frasier at its best. Frasier was frequently about the social climbing and arrivisme of the two Crane brothers, Seattle’s preeminent yuppies. In Modern Family that thread is picked up by Cameron and Mitchell (a nod to actor/writer/director John Cameron Mitchel of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame?), the gay couple. If the set-up for the series sounds like a blueprint for political correctness, the execution is mainly about the laughs. While the writers find pleasing ways to stymie expectations, they do not shy away from stereotypes—whether it’s Sofía Vergara’s fiery Latina or Stonestreet’s flamboyant queen. In last week’s episode, the boys went into a sudden panic about getting their daughter into a pre-school. And, in the best tradition of Frasier, it had to be the most prestigious pre-school. They get cocky when they are advised that, as a gay couple with an Asian child, they are very desirable because they represent an asset that is highly prized by snooty pre-schools: “diversity.” The punch line comes when they find they are competing with an interracial lesbian couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Bottom line: political correctness is not inherently funny, but skewering it is.

In a strange way, what happened to Cameron and Mitchell is like what happened to Juan Williams. (Whoa! I bet you didn’t see that pivot coming.) Unless you are someone who manages to get your news without tuning in to either National Public Radio or Fox News, you know that Williams is the political analyst who worked for both those outfits and was summarily dismissed by the former one a couple of weeks ago. For some reason, it really bothered me what happened to Williams and I still haven’t let go of it. Like the boys on Modern Family, he perhaps assumed that his ethnic minority status gave him latitude to speak honestly and personally about bigotry. But, like Cam and Mitch, he found that his minority status was trumped by another group, in this case Moslems. Like Shirley Sherrod three months ago, he made the mistake of confessing a visceral reaction he had to someone because of their ethnicity and—even though this disclosure was in the context or arguing against bigotry or judging by appearances—it was enough to get him fired. (Of all the media coverage of the incident, the radio program On the Media, which airs on NPR stations, did the best job of putting the whole brouhaha in context and demonstrating why Williams’s firing was unjustified on the grounds given.)

Why does this bother me? It’s not a free speech issue. The Bill of Rights only guarantees the right to speak, not the right to be paid to speak. And I firmly believe that NPR or any employer has the right to hire or fire any employee it wants, subject to any contract that may exist. I suppose the reason it bothers me is that I have listened to Williams for many years now and like him and consider him something of a “friend” that I have come to know. Also, for many years NPR has solicited contributions from me and over the years I have responded (not to mention government money it has gotten over the years), so I feel I have something of an investment or a right to comment on its business practices. Count me among the majority in a recent survey that reported that, between Williams and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, the wrong one was fired. Williams was treated shabbily and in a way that he did not deserve. Of course, the real issue was the annoyance a lot of people have had about Williams appearing on Fox News (watch your back, Mara Liasson!) because it somehow sullies NPR’s pristine brand.

The irony is that, from a public relations point of view (and entirely inverse to how die-hard NPR-heads like to see things), Fox looks like the tolerant and inclusive media environment and NPR appears to be the one locked in an ideological straitjacket. Hey, Levitan and Lloyd, how about a sitcom skewering a hopelessly p.c. radio network?

-S.L., 4 November 2010

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