Modern Family. Photo by Tony Hoffarth.

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Modern Obsession

I’m a fairly temperate person. I drink, but it’s usually only wine and, at most, just a few glasses. I don’t smoke, but I don’t preach the gospel of abstinence to those who do, either. I have passions and causes about which I care deeply, but none of them borders on the obsessive. That is, except one.

Again, as a temperate person it took me by surprise. However, a little over two years ago something happened to me. Something took hold of my life and wouldn’t let go. When this obsession was at its worst, whole days would pass by in a dimly lit blur, me only shaking myself out of the life-sucking haze to attend to bodily demands. Now things are somewhat better, but still, at parties when friends start talking about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or the last series-shattering development in Empire, I simply nod, having no real idea what they’re talking about. You see, for the past two years, I have been on an obsessively strict and socially irresponsible TV/media diet of one show and one show only—Modern Family.

Seriously. Save the occasional detour into the blood-curdling chess game that is Billions (that’s a whole other story), I’ve watched the entire Modern Family series on repeat—almost exclusively—countless times. Literally countless. I can’t even ball park it (just to be clear: this is a confession not a boast).

You can understand, then, how this obsession has puzzled me as a moderate and reasonable person, how it’s shaken up my world. What is the cause of this deep, abiding, consuming love for Modern Family? I’ve asked myself, swallowed up in a well of dank and secret shame.

There are certainly ample reasons not to love the show. Combing through the series an embarrassingly unknown number of times, I’ve accumulated a healthy inventory of reasons to even hate it:

  • It consistently condescends and defames the South (see almost any episode in which Cam’s family is mentioned or featured).
  • It refers to Missouri as the South (see above).
  • It relentlessly mishandles issues of race and class (basically, Gloria).
  • It is produced by the same company that let Roger Ailes tell people the news for almost 20 years.

And the list could go on. But still, no matter how many times I cringe as I watch the show or shake my head with reproach, I can’t help but love it.

In struggling to understand why, I tested out a number of theories. At first, I took a rational approach. Clearly, I love Modern Family because, well, it’s so damn good. I’m a sophisticated consumer of contemporary media, I self-consciously declared, unswayed by cheap thrills and frills. So, if I’m in love with this show, then it’s clearly warranted.

Just take, for instance, its masterful use of the mockumentary style, achieving the perfect mix of cut-a-ways and plot. Furthermore, the timing of the jokes and the pacing of the dialogue are impeccable, regular but not predictable like the rhythm of good poetry. And, of course, the acting is superb, with each character wrapping the viewer up tight in what feels to be an effortless rapport.

In other words, the shit’s hilariously brilliant, and it keeps being hilariously brilliant every time I (re)watch it. Now granted, maybe I don’t guffaw like I did the first time I saw Cam shrill into a little girl’s face, claiming decisive victory in a shouting match over the rightful ownership of Gloria’s dog [“Door to Door,” S3E4]. Still though, I smile and even giggle sometimes.

Ultimately, I had to admit that the show’s artful hilariousness isn’t the cause of my fixation on it. No, this brand of obsession runs deeper than sheer appreciation. This is something else, something less about how the show entertains me and more about, I finally realized, what the show teaches me.

Two years ago the relationship that brought me closer to marriage than I had ever been before ended. It ended for all kinds of reasons, too many and thick to share here. The relationship lasted, though, for as long as it did anyway, because of love. I loved her. And, more than anything, more even than Modern Family, I love the now three-year-old boy that relationship brought into this world. Two years ago, however, I had to reckon with the gut-busting truth that love isn’t actually the only thing a relationship needs to survive.

Loving her was hard. She was stubborn and bull-headed. She would criticize me with neither just cause nor a spirit of constructiveness. And, to top it all off, she was messy.

I’m sure too, though, that I didn’t make loving me any easier. I nagged her about cleaning the dishes “the right way.” I would communicate that I needed time to myself in all the wrong ways. And, to top it all off, I was stubborn and bull-headed. Finally, after wading through more than a couple of not insignificant crises and their sloppy-angry aftermath, I decided that we had to be done trying—and failing—to love each other. For the sake of our son, for the sake of our sanity, for the sake of a future that could be peaceful, unturbulent, temperate even, we had to stop.

The break-up has been hard, and it has been long. Sharing responsibilities for a little one made the space and time to which most break-ups mercifully lead impossible. We have to see each other almost every day. So, inevitably, even though we aren’t trying to love each other anymore, we are still trying to learn how to co-exist with some semblance of harmony. And that, unsurprisingly, has been hard, too.

Sharing anything with another person—be it a car; a life; a child; hell, even a sidewalk—requires so much of us. Patience, sacrifice, and compromise are a few of those required things. Humor, compassion, and thoughtful timing are a few more. Modern Family‘s Mitchell and Cam, Gloria and Jay, Claire and Phil and everybody’s kids—they’ve made a show out of these requirements. For almost nine years now, this family has invited us into the little battles, dramas, and comedies that constitute their collective efforts to make love work.

That’s why I’m obsessed with it, I realized suddenly and not long ago. Watching, in each and every episode, the little acts and elaborate schemes of devotion that keep these people in love with one another teaches me something deep and important.

Yes, I know it’s fake. (Though, admittedly, I so badly want this broken world to have yielded somewhere a human as noble and pure as Phil Dunphy.) But, even in its mockery, even in its fantasy, even in its artifice, it touches something true.

It teaches me that sometimes you come up with a complicated ruse to get someone else to tell your partner that he should stop wearing bike shorts, because you know it would devastate him if you told him yourself [“Strangers on a Treadmill,” S2E4]. It teaches me that sometimes you forgive your husband’s ex-wife even though she ruined your wedding and can’t seem to stop herself from hurdling fists toward your soft parts each time she sees you [“Princess Party,” S2E15]. It teaches me that sometimes, you don’t win the argument, even though you’re right. Sometimes, you let the dishes be dirty or “clean.” Sometimes, you go out of your way, or get out of the way, for love.

While the show has taught me all these lovely and important things, it hasn’t taught me that watching it is the key to saving relationships. No, rather what I love and obsess about in the show are all the collapsed layers of family that somehow manage to hilariously co-exist. They are the spouses and in-laws and ex’s and partners and kids who turn humor and hijinks into all kinds of love.

In between each of those layers, in between the past and the future, in between Dede and Gloria, in between the antics that border on the insane, in between Cam’s sister and Halle’s boyfriends and Ben—in between all that—there is hope. There is the hope that love can survive and be found anew, unexpectedly, and every day in life’s little funny ways. In family.

When you’re wading your way through a tense and painful two-year-long breakup with the mother of a little boy you didn’t expect to have but nevertheless love more than you realized you could love, hope is something you need. It’s something that, at times, can feel in terribly short supply. In a way, I guess, I’m obsessed with the hope Modern Family teaches me to have in the same way I depend on Sabra hummus and blue corn chips to round out my diet. It’s just something I need to keep going.

Now, could all this be nothing more than a temperate person desperately trying to justify his intemperance? Perhaps. But, if nothing else, I think Modern Family can teach us something that might actually be worth obsessing over—finding love and hope in all the silly layers of our tangled up lives. That, I would argue at least, is something worth learning on repeat—almost exclusively—literally countless times.