Just when we were thinking it couldn't be done, ABC's "Modern Family" has single-handedly brought the family comedy back from the dead. Astute in a way we haven't seen since, oh, I don't know, "Family Ties" or maybe "Married . . . With Children," "Modern Family" is sharp, timely and fresh, complicated enough to be interesting but with a soft, sweet center because, and I'm speaking loudly so even cable channels can hear, there is nothing wrong with that.
Interspersed with faux documentary-like interviews with the principals, "Modern Family" follows three parts of a larger clan. "Married . . . With Children's" Ed O'Neill plays Jay, who favors a sweat-suited retiree look despite being rich and married to a young Colombian woman, Gloria (Sofia Vergara, at times over-accessing her inner Charo). Gloria comes with a fabulous young son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), who, at 11, already believes in the ascendancy of true love and the power of poetry to capture same. Jay spends much of his time in the pilot glancing at Manny through the rearview mirror as if he were some ornately plumed exotic bird, while Gloria exhorts him to be the wind at her son's back, not "the spit in his face."
Helping to raise Gloria's son is Jay's second chance at fatherhood; apparently he flubbed his first a bit. Daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) is a stressed-out, overworked, over-scheduled mother trying to keep her teenage daughter from following in her own apparently wanton footsteps and her two youngest children from killing each other. Helping not at all is her husband Phil, a hilarious Ty Burrell, aiming to be the coolest dad on the block, despite the outdated slang, a very bad back and a general air of oblivion.
Providing the sparkling centerpiece of the family is Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who, with his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), has just adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. High-strung by nature, Mitchell is suddenly torn by feeling they are too gay to raise a child -- "We've got to stop having friends with names like Jacques," he says -- and furious at anyone who might possibly feel the same way. Cameron, meanwhile, is content to go more Zero Mostel, in word, deed and totally fabulous silk robe, creating a naturally occurring updated version of "The Odd Couple." In the pilot, theirs are the funniest segments, particularly the introduction of the baby to the rest of the family, though Bowen and Burrell run a very close second.
All the performances are terrific, but what makes "Modern Family" work is its relentless portrayal of recognizable family life. Creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (both from "Back to You" and "Frasier") have given us a comedy that is sharp but not cruel, amused but not judgmental. It's hard not to see yourself, or your mother, or your kids, or your sibling, reflected clearly in one scene at least, and to laugh out loud anyway.
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)