Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The best new show of the year!!

Okay comedy writer, here’s your assignment:

Create a pilot with the following –

Make it a family show, and even though there have been family shows on television for sixty years, find an entirely fresh new approach.

It must be enduring so that you could generate stories for five years.

You must create ten distinctive characters. They all must funny, relatable, edgy, flawed, and yet endearing. They all must relate to each other in some way. You need to set up relationships, dynamics, conflicts, alliances.

You must cast these parts perfectly, preferably with fresh faces we haven’t seen ten thousand times. And if you do use a familiar actor he’s got to be so right for the role you can’t imagine anyone else in his place.

You need to set a tone. Quirky but grounded. “Out there” but believable.

You must introduce all of these elements in twenty minutes, giving each character ample time to establish him or herself. You must create story threads that all dovetail so that the show has a nice flow.

You must make it genuinely funny.

This must be a network show. You have no leeway on language.

You must tie it all together at the end.

And again, all of this in only twenty minutes.

Sound impossible?

That’s MODERN FAMILY that premiered last Wednesday night on ABC. Without a doubt it was the best comedy pilot I’ve seen in years. It was damn near a master class in writing and a producing a half hour sitcom.

Kudos to Steve Levitan & Christopher Lloyd, two sitcom “veterans” (imagine that – old guys) for concocting this delicious stew. Stand-out characters for me were Eric Stonestreet as the flamboyant gay boyfriend (pictured left), Ty Burrell as the clueless “cool” dad, and Ed O’Neill as the family patriarch married to a hot young Latino wife. But all the characters are good. And by midseason I bet I’ll have two more favorites.

MODERN FAMILY is the story of three intertwined families, shot as a reality show. Happily, the purpose of this convention isn’t just to capture the characters in humiliating situations. The story arcs are ingenious, the sight gags and slapstick moments score, and the dialog is hilarious. I say “dialog” because it’s not a series of one-liners. The characters just happen to say funny things that come out of their personalities.

I hope the subsequent episodes are as good. Given the pedigree of the creative staff I like their chances. I would just implore ABC to leave them alone. Let them do the show they want. They already pulled off a spectacular pilot. And it wasn’t as easy as it looks.


P Squared said...

I couldn't agree more. The pilot episode was perfection. It's been years since I've laughed out loud and looked forward to the next episode. This is the first show in years where I've said "Wish I could have worked on this". Bravo! Looking forward to tomorrow night.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...it's on Hulu.com

Rory L. Aronsky said...

A bonus to this, Ken, is Shelley Long appearing in an upcoming episode as Ed O'Neill's ex-wife, who had some choice things to say at his wedding reception.

Baylink said...

Am I supposed to wince this frequently?

Big Julie Bowen fan, but if I'm gonna stub this many toes every time, I dunno.

Ben K. said...

I agree that this is a funny show, and Ed O'Neill is brilliant. (Almost as good as he was on the weird HBO drama "John From Cincinnati.")

But I was completely turned off by Ty Burrell's character, which I disliked tremendously. Not only have we seen a million "idiot dad" characters over the years, but his over-the-top cluelessness wasn't the least bit believable. (Nor was the idea that half-decent parents would punish a child for misusing a toy gun by shooting him with it.) Overall, I found the character more embarrassing than funny.

If a show really wanted to be original, it could make fun of the tattooed "punk dad" types living in urban areas like Park Slope or Silver Lake. But that seems unlikely, since there seems to be an unwritten rule that family sitcoms have to take place in generic suburbs (most of which turn out to be Pasadena). Meanwhile, cities are only for sitcoms about hot young singles -- and (this season only) the cougars who love them.

Larry said...

I find the mockumentary style (which is tiresome enough where it sort of fits in The Office) to be so offputting that I can't enjoy the show. Having characters talk directly to the camera is a cheap way to insert gags and takes me out of the story. While we're at it, what is a shaky camera doing in a sitcom? It's dumb enough in drama.

And if you don't agree with that already, let me add my favorite new show this season is Community.

JC said...

I liked it, but it also made me mourn the loss of Sons and Daughters

Savvy Veteran said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I had heard a lot of hype about Community, and it was definitely also quite good, but I loved every second of the Modern Family pilot. I'd say it was the best pilot I've seen since Arrested Development, even.

Bobomo said...

For this showing, the part of Michael Scott will be played by Ty Burrell.

Nat G said...

Of the three families, two are ones we haven't seen on TV before... which naturally means that there are opportunities for humor without falling into the usual ruts.

Certainly, the best new show I've seen thus far this season, and while that isn't saying much, it's also off to a good start.

D. McEwan said...

Geeze, I wish I agreed, but I was not entranced with it. I had skipped the pilot altogether, having been turned off by the promos. Then a friend (who often comments here) wrote to me, raving about it. It repeated a day or two later, so I caught it then.

I recognized many qualities. It is by no means a terrible show, but I was less than enthused. I had the same problems with the Ty Burrell character that "Ben K" had. Shooting your kids with is toy gun? That's not parenting; it's child abuse. I'm supposed to like a character when he makes me want to call Child Services? His tag scene where he got overly competitive with his son, and wouldn't let him make a basket wasn't funny. It was just a really bad dad. Julie Bowen divorced Dr. Jack Shepherd for this lox?

And I found the gay couple nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying, especially the redhead, who was even more annoying than he'd been on THE CLASS. When the baby was brought in to CIRCLE OF LIFE, my first thought was "Poor kid. She's an accessory in this queen's fantasy life." Admittedly, it was a relief to have cut through Redhead's hideously-annoying evading and blather, but really, butch up. I am gay, and "butch up" is the real life advice I'd give these two. Lilly has two mommies. (I hope for his sake, that Redhead is the top.)

I've set the DVR to record future episodes, so I will give it a few episodes to settle in and win me over, as it is not unwatchable, and Ed O'Niell was a revelation when he manned up at the end, but a show where the best dad is Ed O'Niell? Yikes.

Those are first-rate writers, so I will give it some time to settle in and stop making my skin crawl, but it better happen by mid-season.

So far, as far as I'm concerned, the best new show of the year is FlashForward. That pilot COOKED!

Anonymous said...

Agree 100%! First show in a long time to make me laugh out loud.

Daws said...

Ken, this is totally off-topic on the post, but thought you'd appreciate it:


Psychic baseball announcer?

gottacook said...

I second Larry's comment. Really good comedy writing (or good scripted TV in general) should be able to stand on its own, without shakycam!

(Nor would I enjoy a show that was directed with no camera movement at all. And I did think Homicide: Life on the Street in the '90s made good use of handheld camera, in combination with several editing mannerisms that were used throughout that series. But I would imagine that few real documentaries or "reality" shows use as much movement per shot as some of these pseudo-doc TV shows do.)

As for stepping out of a scene and talking directly to the camera, that could get tiresome really quickly if it happens every episode. A movie can get away with it, though.

rita said...

sorry to butt in from the side line, but *how* can you be flamboyant in *that* shirt?!?!?

will have to wait till it comes out on dvd, though. trust the german networks to ruin the show by providing yet again a sub-standard synchronised version. :(((

Michael Zand said...

I agree with Ken. Modern Family is the funniest new breed of sitcom this season. There hasn't been a funny conventional multi camera sitcom since "Two and a Half Men." (BTW Chuck Lorre must really be hated that he gets shut out of the emmys every year. What's this guy done?)

Didn't find "Community" that funny. I find the writing forced and mechanical in that old style conventional sitcom way. Setup-joke. Setup joke. You can see the gags coming a mile away. Whereas Modern Family was fresh and unpredictable. Season pass on the Tivo for sure.

Pat Reeder said...

I agree with Doug McEwan's assessment on this one. Didn't blow me away. But I've found both episodes of "Community" that I've seen so far to be laugh-out-loud funny. To each his own.

I'd also second the annoyance with the mockumentary format and the shakycam work that calls attention to itself like one of those little promo characters in the corners of AMC shows who jump up and down to distract your attention until you just want to use them for target practice. That stuff may have been cutting edge 5 or 10 years ago, but God, am I sick of it now.

Worst example of shakycam I ever saw was "Friday Night Lights." I sort of had to watch that show (I had friends in the cast), and God help me, I tried, but my eyes couldn't take it. I watched one episode before giving up. All I remember is a scene between two men talking at a cafeteria table. The camera waved all around, as if the cameraman were Stevie Wonder, and the editor randomly cut between extreme close-ups of eyebrows, shirt cuffs, ketchup pouring onto meatloaf, hands yanking paper napkins out of holders, etc. I think it was supposed to be an important conversation, but I have no idea what it was about. That's because by the end, I knew every prop on the table and could tell you how many nose hairs each guy had, but I had NO FREAKING IDEA WHO THOSE TWO PEOPLE WERE! How could I? They never showed either one's face for more than 1/500th of a second.

WV: "nolath" - The reaction a stand-up comic who lisps gets.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Ken, but I have to respectfully disagree. Fresh characters? The gay couple, one flamboyant, one reserved? La Cage Aux Folles, Birdcage, Will and Grace, and, for all purposes, Niles and Frasier. And that creampuff joke was so bent in, it belonged in the movie Airplane. The "hip" dad. A caricature, not a real person in any universe. The sexy teenage daughter, the geeky son, both sitcom staples. And the Latina wife will probably be sued by Charo for copyright infringement. Ed O'Neill was the only one playing an actual person. Old school sitcom characters and jokey jokes wrapped in a documentary shooting style. Sure, there were some funny moments and it will most likely succeed, but the second coming of comedy? I don't think so.

Sean said...

I'm with you Ken. It's a funny show. My favorite line -- "won't she have trouble pronouncing her name?" Julie Bowen's reaction was priceless.

amyp3 said...

I'm either A) a fussy/ bitter old curmudgeon or B) a high-minded aesthete/ cognoscente/ other fancy-schmancy French words.

But I'm just not feeling the love for any new shows.

I sampled a few minutes of this and went away "meh." I liked the book "Flash Forward" is based on. But wasn't super-enthused about the series pilot (which bears little resemblance to the novel).

I saw Community's pilot during a special Facebook promotion weeks ago - also underwhelmed.

BTW Ken - do you think mockumentaries AND flashbacks are a lazy way of storytelling? (I can remember taking a screenwriting class years ago and being told "Don't do flashbacks.")

Mary Stella said...

Count me among the Modern Family fans. I laughed out loud several times. Looks like I'm one of the few that also liked the mockumentary style of filming.

Aaron said...

I only lasted for 10 minutes (ACT ONE) of the pilot.


1. As others have commented, I detest the artificial and pretentious ShakyCam style.

2. Since this is a comedy pilot, THE most important thing is to be funny. Right out of the gate. I found the humor in the first 10 minutes to be very average.

3. "Fresh"? The first thing we see is a nuclear family with wise-cracking kids.

If one of the best comedy writers of the past couple of decades (I'm talking about you, Ken) finds this "Fresh", then I only have one thing left to say:

Welcome to The Era of Diminished Expectations.

Emily Blake said...

I recorded it but haven't watched it yet. It may be a good show, but it's a horrible title. All that goodness in the show and they couldn't come up with something less generic to call it?

Baylink said...

I dunno; I didn't have any trouble predicting the jokes... maybe I should have spent the money on Sitcom Camp instead of the new car. ;-)

Nice to know I wasn't the only one getting squicked on a regular basis though; I too didn't make it past the first act.

Comedy is *so* much taste... this is why it's so hard to do well; things that will make an Arrested Development audience or a Glee audience squee loud enough to hear across town will *only* carry that size audience; you want the masses, you have to write LCD, apparently...

nattay: my recommendatory phrase for this show.

blogward said...

What's different is that it isn't cynical in that modern 'Roseanne/Enthusiasm/Office' way, which is very refreshing; and it's great that all the characters are so in-your-face daffy, instead of relying on story tension - or conflict between them - to wind them up. I have a feeling that the frothiness might start to grate when the jokes get thin, but SHAKYCAM!! Shakycam is BAD. Please stop it!

A. Buck Short said...

Sure you could go to all that trouble, or you could have that Julie Bowen just stand there for 20 minutes and let me watch. If fact, I realize they’re on different networks, but I’d give you 40 minutes if I could see her with that Jillian Jacobs from Community back to back. No, I mean literally back to back. But maybe that’s just me. I did think Stonestreet’s Lion King introduction of the new baby on Modern Family was the highlight of the week.

Anonymous said...

Best mock reality show ever: Trailer Park Boys. The sort of people who watched "Married with Children" and aspired to someday reach that level.

tb said...

I tried to watch 'The Office' last night, I really tried, but I will just never understand the thinking behind the shaky cam crap. Cut to this person: shake, zoom in. Cut to that person: shake, zoom in. On and on. JEEZUZ! GOODBYE!

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
Sorry, Ken, but I have to respectfully disagree. Fresh characters? The gay couple, one flamboyant, one reserved?"

I'm sorry, WHICH was the "reserved" one? The fat flamboyant one preening in the African robes (his ancestors did not come from Africa), or the always-hysterical (in the sense of always having hysterics, NOT in the sense of funny) red-headed queen. So far, Baby Lily is the "reserved" one.

"amyp3 said...
I sampled a few minutes of this and went away 'meh.' I liked the book "Flash Forward" is based on. But wasn't super-enthused about the series pilot (which bears little resemblance to the novel)."

Well it's true that they didn't make all the characters scientists, as in the novel, but went for a cross-section of more-relatable characters, and it's certainly true that they moved the distance in the future of the flash-forward visions from 21 years down to 7 months, to give it a sense of URGENCY, and so the audience and the viewers wouldn't feel "I have to watch this for TWO DECADES to find out what is going on?" (There's a hell of a big difference between "I had no vision. Am I dead in 7 months?" and "I had no vision. Am I dead in 21 YEARS?") But the author of the novel was so pleased with it that he has written one of this season's episodes.

And for the record, I enjoyed COMMUNITY a lot more than MODERN FAMILY. It has, for one thing, the sense to confine Chevy Chase to a small supporting role.

And PARKS & RECREATION has stepped up the funny from its rather tepid first season.

And while EASTWICK is a BLATANT imitation of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, only with magic, and Paul Gross is NOT as sexy as he or the show thinks he is, I was nonetheless amused by it, and will catch more episodes.

But for GREAT viewing, Ken Burns's PBS series this week on The National Parks is wonderful, magnificent eye candy combined with thoughtful history lessons. I thought I knew the history of the parks, especially my beloved Yosemite (where I may have been conceived. My parents honeymooned there), but it is telling me things I didn't know right and left.

Not enough tuners for me to catch The National Parks tonight, and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (Which pulled a Britney last night. Yes, a hoo-haw got flashed on Fox. Nygel says it was "accidental" but they must have one disengaged, and by now, unemployed, editor) AND also the debut of Kelsey Grammar's new show (which is already receiving punishing reviews) so HANK will have to wait for next week, if it lasts that long.

gottacook said...

In a review of HANK at the Onion AV Club (www.avclub.com/articles/hank-pilot,33535), I came across what I thought to be a well-considered point:

At some level, the multi-camera sitcom is like a piece of furniture. When executed perfectly, it can certainly be artful (and, occasionally, art), but most of the time, it’s just aiming to be nicely crafted and well-formed. Just as you don’t question the craftsmanship of a solidly built chair, you don’t really get too worked up about the craftsmanship of a solidly built sitcom. This, in a way, is sort of the difference between the Diane and Rebecca years on Cheers. The Diane years were so well done that they shot past solid craftsmanship and hit an artistic peak for both the show and, arguably, the genre. The Rebecca years weren’t as artful, but every script was so solidly constructed and every actor in the cast knew the ins and outs of their part so well that the series probably could have been a lot worse than it actually was and still could have been pretty good.

MODERN FAMILY would seem to be as well-constructed as described above, but can I watch it? No. (Fans of the pseudo-doc style: Imagine CHEERS done as a shakycam show and you will understand the basic nature of our complaint. The camerawork and quick-cut editing of such shows makes enjoyable viewing impossible, even if it means missing out on terrific writing.)

Matt said...

"Squicked?" "Squee?" Are those real words, or are you just setting up Scrabble players for disappointment?

Jayne said...

Well, I watched Modern Family last night after hearing so many rave reviews about. I wasn't impressed. It felt like a neigborhood version of The Office and I've never been able to figure out the allure of The Office. The only time I laughed was when Ty Burrell was on the screen.

I also watched both Kelsey Grammer's new show and Patricia Heaton's new shows.

The one that got panned the most by the critics is "Hank" and it was actually the one I liked the best and not just because it had Kelsey Grammer in it.

I didn't love "Hank" and it lacked in the writing department but I laughed more than I did at "Modern Family" or "The Middle".

Heaton's show "The Middle" was like a less funny version of Malcolm in the Middle. I found it pretty dull.

Hope said...

Mr. Levine, I know you're a seasoned pro, and I'm just an undergraduate, but have you seen the pilot for Community? I laughed about four times as much with that cast and writing than I did with Modern Family. Hope to read your thoughts on that newcomer soon.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ken...Thanks for the suggestion to watch "Modern Family". It is priceless. I just hope I don't put the hex on it. Every time I like a new show it usually get cancelled.
However, this one has to be a hit!

Ira S. said...

I gotta say, I'm am not impressed by the new comedies unveiled by these networks this season. Modern Family could become a good show, just like the fact that the 30 Rock pilot left a lot to be desired but become one of my favorites. But as of right now, I'm not very hopeful. The documentary style and look of the show and the style of the acting is completely at odds with each other. The reason why the Office works is because it is a bland environment. Bland office, bland lighting, extremely naturalistic writing and acting. People don't give Steve Carell enough credit for that character because what he does it pretty damn subtle while being completely hilarious at the same time. The characters of The Office feel like REAL people. Modern Family feels like PEOPLE IN A SITCOM, aren't we funny!? The filming style of Modern Family says documentary but everything looks too crisp and clear and colorful. All the blocking feels very staged. Not to mention the only actor playing a real human being is Ed O'Neill. All the other characters are charicatures. Or stock sitcom characters. The Ty Burrell character is extremely unlikable and not in a funny way, but in an annoying way. Most of my favorite sitcoms featured characters that are unlikable, but they are only unlikable because people know that they are just like them or have very similar qualities like Seinfeld or similar quirks like Curb Your Enthusiasm. In fact if the show was dead-set on having a documentary style, it would've been better if they just improvised it anyway, like Curb. Then it would probably feel more natural. Eh...anyways those are my two cents. Didn't laugh once. But I do recognize it as being a tiny bit better than Cougar Town which is the most awful show I've seen on T.V. in a long time. The bottom line is networks need to get some balls. It really is a shame that network T.V. has become so vanilla, from all these new lame shows to the absolute pinnacle of unfunny blandness that is The Jay Leno Show, networks just don't know what's truly funny anymore. And the unfortunate thing is audiences are eating it up because "Hey! It's on television! And I'm supposed to laugh!"

Matt said...

Some things that I'm tired of seeing:

*The "sophisticated" wife who marries down to the "retarded cave man" male who can't figure out how to get peanut butter out of a jar without her help. She treats him constant disrespect. You see this on TV shows and commercials ALL! THE! TIME! Enough.

*Any mock documentary TV show, including this one. The Office was enough. I'm tired of seeing it.

*The divisive family unit where everyone hates each other. Wife, husband, kids. Constant negativity. Constant negativism. Constant insults. This alone will force me to stop watching Modern Family. It's depressing to see young people portrayed with such skepticism. Family Ties had tension between siblings, but you always knew Alex loved Mallory. On Modern Family, these little brats really hate each other and Mom and Dad. Can't watch it. I have to buck the "American Beauty" trend.

*There is something about the "look" of modern television shows. What is it? Is it because they're shot digitally? Everything seems muted. Dark. Dull. Are they overly processed somehow? Especially these disposable TV shows: Bionic Woman (2008). Knight Rider (2008). Eli Stone. Life On Mars. Friday Night Lights. Ugh! They just look (and have looked) .. dreary .. to me.

Lizbeth said...

I really like "Modern Family" which is saying a lot because I absolutely hate shakycam (could never watch NYPD Blue or Friday Night Lights). Luckily, I think they toned the shakiness down significantly in the 2nd episode.

Mostly, I can't believe Levitan and Lloyd gave us that mediocre "Back to You" last year. Glad to see they raised their game this year.

Patrick said...

Ira S. said "..." ... Well Ira S. said so much. So many things that I was about to type earlier today and didn't. Very well said, Ira S.. I would add that there are a few other reasons why a show like The Office is successful (and I realize that some here just don't like it, but...) First of all, it is deceptively based on an age old comic premise -- laughing at the mis-fortune of others. And believe it or not, some good old Sammy Beckett farce from "the void". This might all sound a little bit academic, but it is valid none the less. The unfortunate situations that we are laughing at with the characters set in Scranton, are based on the fact that all of these people are stuck in this horrible working environment that makes many American prime time veiwers feel better about themselves as they laugh at the mundane happenings of what must be an office from hell. It is like we watch them all slip on the banana peels of their own lives every week. Watch it again and think of END GAME without all the wacky poetry (just replace it with water cooler humer) and hobo clothes, instead of casual office attire. Also, replace all of the apocolyptic musings with... "That's what she said." Well, maybe the Beckett analogy is strange, but I stand by it. Especially the banana peel thing.

And this MODERN FAMILLY doesn't have any of that, nor the great comic acting skills and timing of a well directed cast. It only has the hand held camera and some good writers and producers. It's like THIRTYSOMETHING for Gen Y. I don't know, I know some here liked it, but I just didn't ... Sorry, but those are my two cents. So Ira S., if we put your two cents and my two cents together, we are that much richer. I feel secure enough to invest my extra with Citibank. How about you?

I also agree with someone else's opinion here that the Kelsey Grammer show was at least close to being funny at times. The Patricia Heaton fiasco was just amateur (and that's coming from a man who never recieved a pay check from Hollywood -- not even a Seven Eleven on Sunset strip ... {add your joke here}) I mean how do you climax a show (a comedy, none the less) with a ridiculous throw away line like Patricia Heaton's last attempt at a joke? I think it was something like, "Maybe her I.D. was fake." (silly face, OVERHEAD PAN OUT, she stands in the middle of the empty highway with her hands on her hips like Wonderwomen)
Seriously? People are getting paid loads of cash to pull that mess together. And I mean no offense to those who get paid to put these messes together. But at some point someone has to say, "Well they might not even laugh at this one in Kansas." Right?

The last part was me trying to throw another nickle into the pot. I apologize for the indulgence.

mandy & ben said...

Hi Ken,

I'm not sure if this is the place where I can ask you a question for your Friday Question. If not, where can I ask my question? Anyway, I was wondering what your take is on laugh tracks? Whenever I watch old eps of Cheers, Wings, The Cosby Show, MASH etc they don't seem to bother me. However, last night I was really irritated/creeped out while watching Hank and listening to the laugh track. It seemed very out of place. When you contrast Hank with Modern Family there is no real comparison. Do you think that laugh tracks are outdated? What I find interesting is that when I watch older shows I find an odd comfort in hearing the laugh track. In fact on the MASH DVD there is an option to turn off the laugh track and I tried that but found myself missing it. What am I to do?


P.S. Go Mariners!

Melody said...

We didn't even make it through the full pilot episode of this show. I wanted to like it - thought it had a decent premise. But I don't like the shakycam style(as others have mentioned). Mainly I couldn't stand Ty Burrell's character. He was so awful that I didn't want to watch him do even one more line.

Kevin B said...

Just saw last week's episode. I am enjoying this new series. But, um, wasn't that one Mr. Ken Levine doing the play by play on the TV?! No wonder you love this show. Your former bosses created it and they cast you!

But yeah, best new comedy of the year.

dno36 said...

It's 4 shows into the season, and I have not enjoyed a show this much since "Soap". Last week sealed the deal for me.
"The last time she was here the refrigerator magnets arranged themselves in the shape of a penta-grandma...".
So many great lines in every show.
Quite worthy of multiple re-viewings just to drag out all the underlying humor.
Wonderfully and smartly written, fantastic cast, and exactly what I need in the middle of my week.

Michelle said...

I'm loving this show, but I loved it even more when I recognized Ken's voice doing the play-by-play for the baseball game in one of the episodes. Way to go, Ken! (P.S. We miss you in Seattle, but I enjoyed hearing you on the Dodgers postgame via XM radio this year.)

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