Easily the new season’s best comedy pilot, “Modern Family” deftly serves up laughs on multiple levels — from understated one-liners to grand sight gags. Flitting among three storylines, it’s smart, nimble and best of all, funny, while actually making a point about the evolving nature of what constitutes “family.” It is also, more pragmatically, something of an odd fit in ABC’s Wednesday stack of new comedies, which otherwise range from a staid 1990s feel (“Hank”) to the not-so-hilarious lowbrow (“Cougar Town”). Some thinning of the comedy herd seems likely, and one can only hope that this cream rises to the top.
The pairing of former “Frasier” writer-producer Christopher Lloyd and “Just Shoot Me’s” Steven Levitan has previously yielded “Back to You,” but this is a vastly superior effort — one that employs some of “The Office’s” direct-to-camera production style and confessionals without feeling overly precious or like it’s working too hard at being the coolest kid in the room.
ABC’s promos spoil a nice reveal toward the end of the pilot (we won’t), which follows three separate arcs: a gay couple (Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet) who have just adopted a Vietnamese baby; a know-it-all dad (Ty Burrell) and his wife (Julie Bowen), raising kids in a somewhat unorthodox manner; and the May-December marriage of a cranky older guy (Ed O’Neill) trying to keep pace with his extravagantly gorgeous Latina bride (Sofia Vergara) and her son, enduring the fact that people tend to call him “Grandpa.”
Each thread has its own merits, with O’Neill (he of “Married … With Children”) as perhaps the lowest-key and highest-profile of the leads. Burrell (whose teachable parenting moments have a way of spectacularly backfiring) and Stonestreet (music from “The Lion King” has seldom been put to funnier use) nab the biggest laughs in the premiere.
As for the show’s prospects, the lack of an obvious companion amid ABC’s fledgling sitcom four-stack, and the shaky track record for smart single-camera comedies, raise doubts as to whether “Family” can find a sizable audience. Although the network clearly recognizes the show’s potential — having screened the pilot in its entirety at the upfronts — the specter of another dysfunctional clan, “Arrested Development,” looms relatively large, and juggling three storylines does invite skepticism as to whether Levitan and Lloyd can maintain the zaniness and quality.
In other words, as enjoyable as “Modern Family” is, these are tough times for families in general and sitcoms in particular. Those dynamics require applying some of the same approach to grading half-hours as dealing with eccentric relatives — namely, practicing patience and lowering expectations.