It’s been a while since I’ve written about Modern Family, the ABC comedy giant that broke onto the scene in a huge way back in 2009 with one of the best TV pilots I’ve ever seen. The introduction to the Dunphys, Pritchetts, and Delgados was honed to perfection and full of potential (remember when Phil shot Luke? Hilarious! “WTF—Why the face?” Laugh-slappy!). Flash forward to Wednesday’s Season 3 premiere, and things are pretty much the same, for better and worse.

For the first thirty minutes, the proceedings took place in a different locale. “Dude Ranch” took the families to Wyoming for a little R&R, and as far as typical sitcom family vacations go (hint: usually not “well”), it was okay. As far as an episode of Modern Family is concerned, “Dude Ranch” wasn’t worth the airfare and the baggage fees. I’m not sure I see the point of shooting in Wyoming for a storyline that could just as easily have taken place closer to home, but if I had a chance to go on an all-expenses-paid trip I’d probably keep my mouth shut too. The second half of the “one-hour premiere,” “When Good Kids Go Bad,” was much better than “Dude Ranch,” but suffered because seeing two Modern Family episodes back-to-back exposes just how static the show has become.

And that’s the problem Modern Family has faced ever since its fantastic start. It’s still a funny show, but it’s the exact same funny show. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, sure—but Julie Bowen’s waistline has shown more growth over the last three years than Modern Family has. It’s become a Mad Lib, albeit a funny Mad Lib, of sorts; I can imagine the writers inserting new one-liners into the blanks of a skeletal script and barely wiping up the old eraser marks. Cam and Mitchell bicker about parenting differences, Phil and Claire bicker about parenting differences, Manny says something kids shouldn’t say, Phil says something adults shouldn’t say, insert joke here about how hot Gloria is, insert joke here about how dim Luke is, Alex calls Hayley dumb, Hayley calls Alex a nerd. It’s a formula that worked for the show in the beginning and still works for the show now, but it’s the same sandwich on different bread, if I may try out a bizarre new metaphor.

The Emmy sweeper is still a lot better than most comedies on TV right now, but so far, Modern Family‘s third season is off to a decidedly un-modern start. If it doesn’t want to be called Three -Year Old Family, it needs to take some—*gasp*—risks. The series boasts one of TV’s best ensemble casts, but the actors’ roles are diminished due to the emphasis on giving everyone equal camera time in each episode. Why not break up the A-B-C storyline and wrap-it-up-with-voice-over mold with a few special episodes? How about an entire episode with the kids at school, or Phil at work, or Jay on an adventure. Just because the cast shares the same inseparability from awards shows doesn’t mean they have to share the same screentime every week.

–Thanks to the natural process of aging, or as I call it, Nature’s way of pushing you closer to death, there is one big change to the show this season: Drooling baby Lily is now talking toddler Lily. The new tot is adorable and follows instructions well so far (let’s not call it “acting” just yet), but man oh man is she a b-i-t-c-h in training! She might want a new agent; it’s never a good idea to have your coming-out episode be one focused on how you want to kill new babies. Thumbs mostly up for new Lily so far, but a final grade will be awarded when we get an idea of how she’s used. What do you think?

–Luke (Nolan Gould) is still the funniest part of the show. Everything he says is funny. He’s hands down the most consistently entertaining character in the cast.

–Cam and Mitchell are especially in need of a makeover. How many more times can we listen to Mitchell whine about not being a good enough dad? How much more stereotypically fabulous can Cam be? What was once TV’s most adorable couple is quickly becoming TV’s ridiculously gay for the sake of being gay duo.

–Was I the only one who found Alex’s first kiss plot painfully uninteresting? That was a storyline that was treated as a throwaway when it could have been used as a main idea for a future episode.

–Gloria riding a horse is the best thing to happen to horses (plastic or real) since Jennifer Connelly in Opportunity Knocks.

–The big winner from last night’s premiere? The Wyoming Tourism Board. It looks gorgeous out there!

Follow writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom

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