Last night the ABC comedy Modern Family won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series. It was one of the only awards that went to actors of color in what’s turned out to be a remarkably white awards season, even by Hollywood standards.
I admit to really liking Modern Family, a show about three American families: Jay, the patriarch played by Ed O’Neil and his younger Colombian wife Gloria are the heads of one branch, Jay’s son Mitchell and his partner Cam and their daughter make up another, and Jay’s straight daughter Claire, her husband and their three kids round out the family. The show is at its core about the zaniness of family life, and it’s feel-good funny without relying on cheap gags or ignorant jokes for laughs. If you’re not familiar with the show, you can check out a short clip above.
The show is not perfect on race, but what I like is that it has white characters who are self-aware about racism but are often forced to confront their own blind spots about race. Best of all, it comes without the self-important moralizing that’s become the hallmark of other comedies that purport to tackle race. (It should be noted that Glee and Modern Family have been competing in the same category for years–Modern Family lost its SAG award to Glee last year.)
Take this clip, in which Mitchell and stage dad Cam stand by while their daughter, a Vietnamese adoptee named Lily, has her turn in a Godzilla-themed commercial for a kids’ furniture store. It could be all kinds of wrong, and it certainly is, but it’s smart enough that it hits all the marks of how race is discussed today, especially among well-meaning white liberals. We’re laughing at Cam and Mitchell but really, the show is allowing the audience to laugh at society and our national racial discourse, which is to say: ourselves.