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Ecks Factor: Why Modern Family Won Again

For the first time in three years (seriously), ABC's Modern Family pulled off the three-peat victory at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards, scoring another win for Outstanding Comedy Series (of course 30 Rock did it from 2007-2009). And for the first time in those three years, Modern Family has not been heralded by critics and audiences alike as the deserving victor. Many had hoped it would finally go to NBC's Parks & Recreation. But on an early morning in July, the five-season-old comedy was MIA on the final ballot, as were many other deserving nominations. The then-two-years-running champion, Modern Family, was joined by multi-time nominees The Big Bang Theory, Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock, as well as newcomers from HBO, Girls and Veep.

Most acknowledged that the only likely nominee to walk off victorious was the hit ABC comedy. But most weren't happy about it. Critics were a tad harsh on the series last year, citing multiple instances of mediocre writing, ho-hum plotlines and a general feeling of age. Three years constitutes age on TV now? I'll admit overall writing was lacking at certain points in its third season, but for all its flaws, Modern Family continues to be one of the best all-around series on television.

As made abundantly clear with this year's pilots, casting is key. And someone struck gold when they cast Modern Family. Ed O'Neill as the aging patriarch of the Pritchett clan, Jay, married to a sexier, younger Colombian woman, Gloria, played to perfection by Sofia Vergara. Gloria has one wiser-than-his-years son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay's children, Mitchell and Claire (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Julie Bowen, respectively), have families of their own: Mitch is married to lovable Cam (Eric Stonestreet, in his two-time Emmy winning role) and they have adopted an adorable little girl (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons); and Claire is married to Best Dad Ever, Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), while they have three kids: Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould).

What a rare feat Modern Family has pulled off: not one of the adult actors is a weak link in the cast. Normally, a cast is only as strong as its weakest link, and even still, my pick for the weakest in the cast, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, is far too much of an asset to the show to label him as low man on the totem pole. He's terrific as perpetually-nervous and always-right Mitchell. Eric Stonestreet, a straight actor, plays a gay man better than most actual gay actors. Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen are TV's funniest married couple. Sofia Vergara could verge on becoming cartoon-ish, and she does, but it works. And Ed O'Neill serves as the wise father, even when he can't handle a wife twenty years younger and a pre-teen/teenage stepson.

Even more rare is a child cast that's as strong (and stronger, at times) than the adults: know-it-all Alex (a kind of live-action Lisa Simpson), 13-going-on-30 Manny, father's son Luke, and completely underrated Sarah Hyland as Haley. Hyland could play Haley as a total brat or a complete idiot or a mean sister. She does, because that's Haley, but the genius in the show is not creating one-dimensional characters. Haley is a glue that holds the Dunphys together. She's the big sister, she's the young daughter going to college. And she's as caring to her family just as much as she's an 18-year-old cause of stress and anxiety. And Hyland does it just as perfectly as the adults.

Modern Family depicts just that: a modern family. It's an older man married to a younger woman. It's both of them raising a pre-teen son. It's a mother and father with three kids, none of them easy to deal with, but all of them an integral part of the family. And it's two men in love with one another raising an adopted child. It could've become preachy a long time ago, and admittedly, it crosses the line on occasion. But it's necessary to promote the authenticity of the show.

So, we knew all that. That's what made Modern Family what it is today. But why did it win for a less-than-stellar third season?

The series has continued to evolve and grow. Cam and Mitchell desperately want a second child. Phil and Claire find new issues to deal with, including Haley's admission that she's no longer a virgin or that she doesn't intend to go to college right away (she eventually does). Jay keeps feeling older and that won't stop when he finds out (in the Season 4 premiere) about becoming a dad again.

But most important to the show's growth is the relationship between Cam and Mitchell. A scene in the season finale can attest to why this show is as popular and decorated as it is. It portrays Cam and Mitchell in a way that sets aside the normal stereotypes most networks demand for gay characters. Of course Cam can be flamboyant (again, a testament to Eric Stonestreet), and yes they've shared intimate moments, including well-placed lip-locks. But the series has especially portrayed them as a strong, loving, caring couple, capable of raising a child on their own, despite what they lack as two male partners. It shuts up the critics of gay marriage that think children shouldn't be raised by only two men or two women. Of course it's only a TV show, but that doesn't take away how smartly written Cam and Mitchell are. And it's the brilliance of the show that these qualities are only subtle. To make it a priority to showcase their gay couple would make the show too preachy. It's done just right.

Modern Family is still as funny as it's ever been. It finds new ways to make me laugh every week. And by episode's end, there is usually a touching moment that brings it all together. It can border on sappy, but try to watch a family sitcom from the 80s. As great as they were, they inserted those same sappy moments, but more overtly. Modern Family's genius is in its subtleties.

Is it still the most deserving Emmy winner for Outstanding Comedy Series? That's debatable. I still yearn for the day that the Emmys recognize Happy Endings. Even past and present nominees Girls, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Parks & Recreation may have deserved it more.

But to call Modern Family's victory anything besides well-deserved is crazy. The importance of the show to television is underestimated: it has proven that smart family comedies can still be made; it has proven that a cast of past TV failures (most cast members have at least one failed series under their belt) can be brought together for a TV masterpiece; and it has proven most of all that good comedy can still be found on network television. And even in its third season, flaws and all, Modern Family is still one of the funniest shows on television.

Coming up this week is Part II of my Pilot Roundup for 2012. Until then, stay tuned.

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