Modern Family is filmed like somebody is making a documentary. Who is making the documentary that is Modern Family? And Why?
In the original pilot script for Modern Family, the creators included a subplot explaining why the show’s three wacky families were being filmed documentary-style. The idea was that the interconnected families were the subject of a movie being made by a Dutch exchange student; he was going to have a backstory and fall in love with one of the regulars.
But by the time the show made it to air, the documentary filmmaker was nowhere to be seen, and as Modern Family has grown into the biggest hit comedy of the season, the characters have never shown any awareness that they’re being filmed. Co-creator Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me!) made it official in an interview with the Television Critics Association, saying that the presence of the documentarian “felt like an appendage, like we didn’t need it.” Modern Family is now a show that uses documentary film techniques but never bothers to explain why; that’s why Levitan calls it “a family show done documentary-style.”
Originally “Modern Family” centered on a Dutch filmmaker who had been an exchange student with the Pritchetts in high school. The writers dropped the character because he was cumbersome, and, as Mr. Levitan said, “because I don’t like the people who allow cameramen to sit around their house all day while they raise their kids.”
But two crucial elements remain. First, characters in the middle of a scene will often glance at the camera, a disconcerting aside that has the effect of making the viewer feel both like a part of the family and an observer. A result is a feeling of “Who’s laughing at whom here?” that echoes the larger reality-show surrealism that surrounds the Kardashians, “The Housewives” and Sarah Palin.
Second, the characters in “Modern Family” all offer confessional interviews directly to an unidentified cameraperson. Jay may say he pretends to love his daughter’s blueberry pie, but he really hates it. Or Mitchell may say, as he does in this episode, “Cameron has it in his head that I don’t listen to him, but I do.”
The idea of internal monologue is hardly new — think of any ballad in a Broadway musical. What’s new is that we all engage in this sort of running narrative of our lives, rushing off after dinner (or coitus) to share our confessions on Twitter or Facebook.
As Mr. Lloyd said: “The interviews are a chance to have characters more honestly express things than they might openly do in a scene with someone. So we get a laugh from the contrast between what they’re really feeling and what they were willing to admit they were feeling in the scene.”