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Modern Families, Now and Then

by Elisabeth Siegel

In thinking of modern TV sitcoms and their relationship to sitcoms of the 1950s, I found Jay and Gloria of Modern Family to be a modern interpretation of George and Gracie of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. George and Jay are both the apparently practical, dominant patriarchs of their respective families, and both act as interpreters for their wives – Jay sometimes literally, since Gloria, a native of Colombia, often faces language barriers. Gracie is overtly ridiculous, while Gloria has her moments of cultural dissonance with amusing effect, and yet despite that, Gracie and Gloria always come out on top. Ultimately, their husbands are reliant on them, no matter how in control the men initially seem. Jay also inherits George’s knowing looks to the audience, both within the narrative of each episode and in the separate interview segments. In a modern update, however, Gloria gains access to the look as well – she may be the subject of the joke at times, but she can also be in on it, or even be the manipulator. Jay no longer has a monopoly on audience interaction like George did. The form of direct address, too, has received a 21st century update. While George talked directly to the audience on a literal stage apart from his domestic sphere, Modern Family employs the somewhat popular invisible interviewer format, and each session takes place within the home. Jay and Gloria talk to us from the comfort of their own living room couch, and yet the method of address maintains the stage space/domestic space dichotomy that George Burns utilized. While George’s monologues honed in on the ever-present liveness of television, Jay’s interviews serve as a functional equivalent, removed from the diegetic action and its timeline. But the change in style is emblematic: the interviews strive less for liveness and more for realism, as a way of breaking through the tiresomely contrived formats of sitcom television that have oversaturated the market. Modern Family and the myriad other shows that currently enact the interview format aim to achieve a sense of naturalism and reality that make the programs feel more organic – a welcome change of pace for today’s viewers. While George and Gracie championed a format that proved successful for 1950s audiences, Jay and Gloria are their heirs, embracing the best of George and Gracie’s dynamic and style and modernizing where it would suit a 21st century audience.

Modern Families, Now and Then

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Jay and Gloria interview scenes from the pilot episode of Modern Family.

from Modern Family (2009)
Creator: Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Elisabeth Siegel
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