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Modern Family: The Complete Second Season

Fox // Unrated // September 20, 2011
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 1, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

Throughout Modern Family's second season -- another batch of cleverly-written, stereotype-manipulating episodes that comes close to matching the first season -- it's become obvious that the writers and actors have hit a rhythm that's going to keep the series around for, hopefully, a long time to come. It continues the same faux-documentary formula as its Emmy-winning premiere run (and several of the comedies that it apes), with zero laugh track guiding the audience's laughter and the same consistency of off-camera interviews, offering glimpses into characters' thoughts and extra scene exposition. Only instead of a sterile office environment or the interworking parts of a government parks division, ABC's series looks into the home for a series that's even more relatable and, more often than not, can be extremely funny in its elevated-reality glance at the contemporary domestic climate. And you're getting more of the same this time around, with a pardonable hiccup here and there.

For the uninitiated, Modern Family splits its focus among three families, all riffs on the current definition of the "norm". There's the traditionally-nuclear Dunphy clan, which essentially consists of a housewife, Claire (Julie Bowen) taking care of four kids (three mid- to high-school aged children and her gadget-addicted realtor husband, Phil (Ty Burrell); an adoptive gay couple -- one a mousy bread-winner, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the other a bear-ish stay-at-home dad, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) -- raising a Vietnamese baby girl, Lilly; and the head patriarch, Jay (Ed O'Neil), a wealthy business owner recently remarried to a voluptuous, thick-accented Columbian vixen, Gloria (Sofia Vergara), and her old-soul son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Outside the general grand-picture story of families growing up, there isn't much in the way of concurrent plot-threads, even less this season than the last's focus on Cam and Mitchell's trepidation over Lilly and Hailey Dunphy's off-and-on relationship with Dylan. Yet you still get enough of a grasp on story "progression" through graduations, holidays, and other significant events.

Just like last season, each episode playfully concentrates on a theme or nugget of familial insight, which intersects among the three families. Often it's something simple, like being adventurous by trying new things (be it drinking chocolate milk or instrumental music) or deliberately extending outside one's comfort zone in a complicated situation; other times, occasionally in the same episode, they revolve around provoking more thought in terms of family communication and mechanics, like double-standards between parents and children or how a married couple should talk to their kids after they walk in on their parents having sex. Modern Family's writers have a clear perspective on how these situations play out -- for better or worse -- within the walls of a typical home, and they twist them into semi-practical yet hilariously exaggerated send-ups. No comedic stone goes unturned, either; from rowdy slapstick to heavily-slathered situational comedy, there's plenty of well-pitched, versatile humor to be found among the three families.

Usually, series like Modern Family sand out their rough edges in a sophomore season, or, if things are already running smoothly, fill in any noticeable gaps. Since the first season garnered a slate of award nominations, the cast and writers have chosen to merely sustain the same rhythm and, surprising for a sitcom, leave all of the characters mostly unchanged in their mannerisms during the transition, not ramping up or dialing back any of their quirks. A noticeable change does occur in the series' children, however, whom are again uniformly fantastic; as they grow older, the writers actually use their maturing to the show's benefit, allowing their intelligence, dweebiness, and social discomfort to develop as they do with, well, normal kids. You'll get to see brainiac Alex break out of her socially-closed shell, Manny enjoy some real highs and lows with girls his age, and Luke ... well, just being Luke. He went underused in the first run, standing out as a one-note doofy kid at first, but he sees a few great moments this time around (especially involving a squirt gun in "Slow Down Your Neighbors", earning some of the season's bigger laughs). Conversely, it's Haley who actually delivers what's arguably the season's most poignant dramatic moment late, revealing some of her vulnerability to a family member.

While the exploits among the Dunphy-Pritchett clan get more than a few belly laughs as they tinker with true-to-life family issues, pivoting on a well-rounded and consistent cast, the show might've only kept me as a casual viewer if it weren't for Phil Dunphy, played by (now Emmy-winning) Ty Burrell. There's a degree of addictive anticipation behind seeing how he'll interact with the medley of family members: how he awkwardly swoons over his father-in-law's gorgeous, feisty wife, played by the ever-snappy Sofia Vergara; how he throws out hip lingo and rubs elbows with his eldest daughter's doltish rocker boyfriend; and how he tries to pose as a strapping, trendy husband and father around his kids and his rigid, knows-him-better-than-that housewife. He and Julie Bowen nail a quirky and energetic rapport that relies on the two actors' attuned comedic sensibilities; Bowen's a far better physical comedienne than she receives credit for, while Burrell juggles every facet of his character -- awkward accidents, tongue-tied discomfort, and affable innocence -- with lively and grin-inducing timing.

Modern Family can be hit-and-miss in two areas, though: revisiting old story tropes, and incorporating guest stars. While it's nearly impossible not to find some enjoyment in seeing the return of "Clive" and "Juliana" for another botched Valentine's Day excursion, the way that the writers allow old story elements to reemerge feels forced and frustrating. This primarily applies to "Princess Party", where Cameron again gets up-in-arms when he's not allowed to bring his clown alter-ego, Fizbo, to Lilly's birthday party. In a double-whammy, the spiteful ex-Mrs.Pritchett (Shelley Long) also comes back for that one, with the Jaws theme announcing her first entrance and accompanied by Claire's ex-boyfriend, aggravatingly played by Matt Dillon, at another. Some of the other, reserved guest appearances are, conversely, rather successful; Nathan Lane's appearance(s) as "Pepper", a toned-down version of Albert Goldman, fits into the mold of Cam and Mitchell's friend-base flawlessly, while brilliant character actor Philip Baker Hall plays a cranky, feared neighbor down the street just right.

It's difficult to cherry-pick upper-tier episodes to highlight because, frankly, the level of quality remains pretty strong throughout the season, but there are two. "Halloween" is arguably the best on the thematic side, where the family -- who has completely changed the way they handle all other traditional holidays -- tries to do up Claire's favorite holiday as big and brassy as they can by putting on a haunted house at the Dunphy's. It treads on similar ground to the Christmas episode from last season, where Jay desperately latches onto his traditions as Gloria and Manny's Columbian roots slowly took it over, but it also delivers a equally firm punch since it's looked at from Claire's perspective. And then there's "Good Cop Bad Dog", where Claire trades spots with Phil for the day in terms of who's the disciplinarian -- and, well, the kids "poke the bear" that's stirring in the more passive Phil. A lot of it hinges on Ty Burrell's brand of humor, but it's a hysterical glimpse at what happens when a parent with extremes goes in the opposite direction. They're the pinnacles of just why Modern Family works: that right mix of gut-bursting laughter and reflection on what's going on, or might eventually go on, under your roof -- at least, to some faint degree.

The DVD:

From the alternating discs to the animated menus and (repetitive) theme music on the home menu, Fox Home Entertainment have essentially replicated the presentation for the first season to this Modern Family: The Complete Second Season standard-definition arrangement. Only instead of four discs, they've condensed all the material into three (!), leaving the set as a single-trayed, three-disc presentation inside a standard clear keepcase.

Video and Audio:

Fox Home Entertainment released the first season of Modern Family spread across four DVDs, with six episodes occupying each, and it stood up extremely well to its high-definition broadcast (and Blu-ray) counterparts. This time around, since they've decreased the number of discs to three, they've crammed eight 1.78:1 16x9-enhanced episodes onto each -- coming out to close to three hours of material on each disc, not including the special features. Have the transfers taken a hit in quality? Maybe a little, but the show's vibrant, slick photography style hides most of the imperfections that might come about. Textures are a bit smoother, there's some compression noise here and there, and the focus on detail isn't as tight as the previous season; however, these factors are combated by impeccable contrast, an overall firm grasp on minor details in mid-distanced close-ups and clothing shots, and vivacious palette usage.

Some might assume that just because Modern Family revolves on dialogue -- which sounds wonderful and aware of environments here -- that it's not a dynamic sound affair, and while that does apply to rear-channel activity, the handling of sound elements in the Dolby Digital 5.1 track will often surprise with their crispness and punch. Crashing LEGOs, the plucks of a guitar, the boom of a rock band echoing in the night air, and the revving of a full-tilt Mustang engine send out a few clear shockwaves, often scooping into the lower-frequency channel pleasing enough. I do have to share an experience with you: there's an episode, "Chirp", that revolves around smoke detectors giving off their low-battery warning sounds in the Dunphy house. And I swear, even knowing that the sound was assuredly coming from the speaker setup, it felt like it was echoing in my house. Everything here sounds great, better than you might expect. Optional English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Chinese subs are available.

Special Features:

Each disc arrives with a series of Deleted Family Interviews and Deleted / Extended Scenes that correspond with the episodes on each, which naturally vary in quality (though you'll find that even though a lot of the scenes might be funny, they were wise choices in comparison to the stuff left in). A few other features can be found across Disc One and Disc Two: a Table Read of Strangers on a Treadmill (37:35, 16x9) shows the full cast doing a run-through of the rough material in front of a live audience, and it's clear that they have a great time doing so. A brief behind-the-scenes glimpse at Mitch's Flash Mob (2:44, 16x9) features interview time with Jesse Tyler Ferguson explaining how he "prepared" for it, while a "pro-quality" music video for Dylan's son Imagine Me Naked (3:39, 16x9) arrives on the second disc.

Disc Three carries a greater number of special features than the other two discs, most of it featuring behind-the-scenes shots mixed with interviews. Modern Family Holidays (10:13, 16x9) covers the preparation and conception of the episodes this season that took place during specific holidays, while Waiting for Oprah (3:53, 16x9) shows the cast and crew bustling around the morning before they went live via satellite on the Oprah Winfrey show. Chatting with Steve Levitan (4:14, 16x9) features a few brief candid moments where the producer talks about taking some personal experiences from around his home and transplanting them into the series, and At Home with Modern Family (6:12, 16x9) allows us to follow production designer Richard Berg as he guides us through the three homes/sets featured in the show. Also, we've got a rather funny Gag Reel (8:26, 16x9) that mixes actual mistakes with some of the chaos used in the show.

Final Thoughts:

This is one of those occasions where saying "more of the same" is a firm compliment. Continuing with a near-identical caliber of quality to its first season, Modern Family rustles together a cluster of new domestic scenarios that emphatically put the sit- in sitcom as they hilariously navigate a trio of contemporary family units. The cast has done nothing but tighten their bond and sharpen their timing, making the well-written comedy just as snappy and effective as before, retaining the heart while it generates the laughs. There are a few stumbling blocks and merely lukewarm episodes along the way, but the mixing of stereotypes, consistent slapstick and situational humor, a touch of genuine heart and the same reflection-in-the-mirror relatable context makes it another successful run for ABC's show. The episodes all look great, and we've got a nice selection of behind-the-scenes material and deleted/alternate scenes. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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