Every time I watch Modern Family, I look for any indication that this show depicts a family. I keep hoping to see some vague sign of intimacy between Mitchell or Cameron, or to understand why a high-strung woman like Claire stays married to a bumbling loser like Phil. I guess the lack of chemistry between characters doesn’t bother most viewers since Modern Family has already picked up a handful of awards since its debut, but it’s a notable and critical absence for me.
Watching chemistry play out on television is almost undefinable, and I don’t think its absence is necessarily the result of a poor casting decision. With the exception of Cameron, all of the other actors on Modern Family are decently matched to their characters. Their lack of chemistry emerges in their interactions with each other. Each actor plays a particular type of character with great enthusiasm, but when these types (the obsessive gay guy, his needy partner, the anxious mother, the inept father, etc) encounter each other, it’s as if they don’t know how to interact.
Modern Family is so consumed with depicting a blended family made up of many distinct, and perhaps unexpected, character types, that it tends to lose sight of the fact that characters will engage with other characters. Every time I see a scene like the one between Gloria and Phil as she cuts his hair, I wonder how such awkward people can exist. If at least they managed to co-exist, then fine, it would be another Arrested Development, but these characters are focused on playing themselves at the expense of communicating with their family members. Gloria and Phil circle each other linguistically, but they know nothing about each other. I don’t believe that they’re part of the same family.
I know it may seem like character chemistry is a superficial aspect to examine in an otherwise respectable television show, but the distinction between characters who have it and characters who don’t is pretty clear to me. On Modern Family, I buy into the reality of two relationships: parent and child Phil and Luke, and siblings Claire and Mitchell. Phil and Luke’s relationship makes perfect sense since Luke is essentially a dumber version of Phil. One can only hope that the kid grows into his looks so he’s got something going for him.
In comparison to the many forced or contrived relationships on the show, Claire and Mitchell’s relationship just feels natural. This is the basic crux of the chemistry dilemma: does it feel natural? I realize that certain relationships may seem natural to other viewers of Modern Family, but for me, only Claire and Mitchell capture the essence of the sibling relationship. When I see them interact with their families–Claire, the restless housewife, and Mitchell, the whiny overachiever–and then I see them converse with each other, I can tell that their relationship works on a different, deeper level. Claire and Mitchell’s shared perfectionism emerges in their discussions of their families, but they also speak to each other in an ironic yet caring manner that emphasizes their familial bond.
In comparison to the Claire and Mitchell dynamic, the other relationships on the show seem tepid. Maybe the actors have no chemistry in reality, but it’s part of their job descriptions to fake it. If you’ve created an entire character from a three-line description in a script, and you embody this character on multiple episodes of a show, you should be able to assess your character’s relationship with other characters. Get into your character, go outside your character-self, and feel what it’s really like to be part of this television family. Stay tuned!