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Is 'Happy Endings' More Modern Than 'Modern Family'?

by Laura Prudom, posted May 11th 2011 3:30PM
Fair warning: I'm about to hit you with an unpopular opinion. And though I challenge the assertion that an unpopular opinion even exists on the Internet, overzealous melting pot of ideas and ideologies that it is, this disclaimer is my paltry attempt to avoid a comments section full of vitriol, mud-slinging and CAPS LOCK abuse. Because what I'm about to say certainly flies in the face of critical consensus.

So, Unpopular Opinion Alert: Not only do I think that ABC's midseason comedy, 'Happy Endings,' is funnier than 'Modern Family' (and a great majority of other comedies on air this year, for that matter), I also believe that it is a more accurate, modern representation of Western life than the show with 'Modern' in its title.

Hear me out, though, because I can hear the pitchforks being sharpened and the torches being lit. I would never dare to presume to tell you which show is the "funniest," since one man's trash is another man's treasure, and 'Modern Family' is not a bad show -- most of the time, it's a sharp, poignant, chuckle-worthy mid-week boost -- but something has always prevented me from loving it, from accepting it into my heart and eagerly anticipating it week to week the way I do 'Cougar Town,' 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Community' and now 'Happy Endings.'

Perhaps it's not even 'Modern Family's' fault -- judging by the ratings and award wins, most of America doesn't share my reticence, while 'Happy Endings' is hovering dangerously close to the bubble after a month on the air.

But comedy, like opinions, is subjective, and aside from the fact that the 'Modern Family' brand of comedy just doesn't make me laugh out loud the way 'Happy Endings' does (an unquantifiable case of lightning in a bottle for any sitcom), there is one thing about 'Modern Family' that I've always found problematic: Its representation of homosexuality, and, to a lesser extent, race. That's what I want to focus on in this opinion piece: Which show is giving audiences something fresh and unique, something outside the stereotypes and clichés that dominate network programming?

Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler FergusonAnd sure, as a straight, white female, I'm not ideally positioned to make these arguments, but I am qualified to comment on things I see on television that make me uncomfortable, and something about Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell's (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) brand of flamboyant, stereotypical flouncing has always rubbed me the wrong way and kept me at a distance from their storylines. And while I think that the inclusion of an "unconventional" parental unit in a primetime comedy is a very important step forward in terms of portraying sexuality and the modern iterations of "family" on screen, one commendable aspect does not excuse 'Modern Family' for tripping on a number of other clichés.

I fear that in trying to appeal to the widest possible audience, 'Modern Family' presents stereotypical, preconceived notions of homosexuality that "Middle America" (ideologically, not geographically, before I offend any open-minded Nebraskans) is more comfortable with -- or at least more accepting of -- and does little to challenge those stereotypes.

When people think of gay men, perhaps many do picture Cam's flamboyant overdramatics, or Mitchell's repressed, type-A neuroses; I think that 'Happy Endings' does a much better (and more responsible) job of presenting a different homosexual perspective, in order to illustrate that, despite what some viewers may think, not every gay man behaves in the same way. Reinforcing stereotypes is a dangerous thing, and I think it's the duty of TV shows to open viewers' minds to the whole human experience, especially to viewpoints that they may have never encountered before.

I'm sure that a number of 'Modern Family' viewers can relate to the way Cam and Mitchell are written -- after all, stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason (as season one of 'Modern Family' adroitly illustrated in the episode 'Fears'), and everyone displays their sexuality in different ways. But it's disheartening to see a lack of diversity in the portrayal of gay men in a show that purports to be a representation of modern America -- while Mitchell and Cam's identities are valid, where are the other homosexual identities, from less flamboyant gay men to lesbians? While I'm certain that there are a number of gay guys who'd love to dress their child up like Carmen Miranda for a photoshoot, there are probably just as many who would be embarrassed by the prospect, and many of my nearest and dearest fall into that category.

As the series wears on, I become more convinced that 'Modern Family' is content to present a safe, palatable, PDA-lite version of a homosexual couple with an adopted child -- it plays on those stereotypes in order to make conservative viewers more "comfortable" with the idea of an unorthodox family unit.

To give 'Modern Family' its due, in getting audiences accustomed to seeing gay families on screen, no matter how "safe" the portrayal may be, it's still paving the way for more shows like 'Happy Endings' and 'Glee,' shows that are brave enough to display the different facets of homosexual identity. But that is why Happy Endings is more "modern" and, in my opinion, more worthy of critical praise than Modern Family in terms of representing today's America.

In the recent episode 'Boys Night Out,' we were introduced to Cam and Mitchell's wider circle of friends (resplendent with names like Crispin, Pepper and Longines) who all enjoyed a good cocktail (who doesn't?) and a howling debate about their first guy crushes. The episode seemed designed to highlight the fact that Mitchell's repressed father, Jay (Ed O'Neill), wasn't quite as closed-minded as he often appears, and on that front, the episode was a success. But in terms of offering a picture of homosexual men who weren't perfectly coiffed, cocktail swilling approximations of the 'Sex and the City' girls, it missed the mark.

The 'Happy Endings' character of Max (Adam Pally), on the other hand, is at the other end of the spectrum from Cam and Mitchell. Like Cam, Max isn't exactly the svelte, muscle-bound gym-bunny cliché, but he's also far from an effeminate, flag-waving stereotype. (It's also interesting to note that both Cam and Max are played by straight actors, but that's an article for another day.)

His friends often tease him for acting like "a straight dude who likes dudes," especially Penny (Casey Wilson) who tasks him with finding her a "proper gay ... who will watch house-flipping shows with me and grab my boobs in a platonic way," in the episode 'My Couples Friends and Neighbors.'

She soon realizes that the type of gay guy Max would describe as "a stereotypically flamboyant, cartoonish 'Sex and the City' gay" ain't all he's cracked up to be, and it's a little depressing that the kind of stereotype one show uses to illustrate how offensive stereotypes can be, actually shares more than a few characteristics with the main characters of another, supposedly forward-thinking comedy attempting to portray a slice of modern life.

Eliza Coupe and Adam PallyBut despite his tough, nonchalant facade, Max still struggles with the dynamics of relationships, just like anyone else -- rather than being in a monogamous relationship like Cam and Mitchell, he's still afraid of commitment (another common stereotype), and episode four, 'Mein Coming Out,' dealt with his fear of coming out to his parents, in one of the show's most touching storylines.

Since I want to avoid being a "gaycist" (a term coined by Max in the episode 'Of Mice and Jazz-Kwon Do') and keep from making sweeping generalizations from my straight chick pulpit, I thought it would be sensible to put my theory to a couple of my fellow TV reporters, both of whom possess the correct anatomy and orientation to speak on the subject with more authority.

Damian Holbrook, senior writer at TV Guide opined: "Max is way more representative of myself and my peers than Cam or Mitchell, although there are certainly people who will see themselves more in the 'Modern Family' characterizations than on 'Happy Endings.' And while the bitchiness and jaded "over-it" attitude that all three of them often display is a pretty common stereotype among gay roles on TV, I appreciate that Max is a gay man who is written as both gay and a man. No mincing, no showtunes, no fashionista dramatics. It's about time TV caught on to the fact that not every gay man walked out of the closet and straight into 'La Cage Aux Folles.'"

Jim Halterman, who writes for The Futon Critic and Edge weighed in: "Max definitely seems closer to reality than Cam and Mitchell. While just having [gay] characters there as regular parts of their respective shows is progress, the stereotypes are more glaring with the 'Modern Family' gays. While I won't say men like Cam and Mitchell don't exist, I personally know more Max-like gays who are not of the 6-pack/ripped up variety and who are not as career driven and successful as you usually see on television. Overall, this is all progress, because while I loved Jack McFarland on 'Will and Grace,' he was one of the worst stereotypes for the gay community. At least Cam and Mitchell are in a solid, monogamous relationship and their families accept them for who they are (and acknowledge the awkwardness sometimes). But having someone like Max intentionally not look like the typical gay stereotype full of fashion and flair, and being so comfortable with who he is that his confrontations don't come off as desperate or needing validation, is a step in the right direction."

I understand that 'Modern Family' often attempts to draw attention to stereotypes by poking Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Fergusonfun at them, but as is often the case with Cam and Mitchell -- and with Gloria and her Colombian accent and traditions -- there comes a point where writers begin to perpetuate stereotypes instead of simply satirizing them.

Is 'Happy Endings' perfect? No. Like any other comedy, sometimes the jokes fall flat -- but in terms of presenting a realistic (if dramatically heightened) representation of our culture while still being a-mah-zingly hilarious, I'd choose the sometimes quirky, often risqué group at the center of 'Happy Endings' in a heartbeat.

Or better yet, enjoy it right alongside 'Modern Family' as two wildly different portrayals of what race and sexuality mean in America today. Kudos to ABC for having the courage to green-light two such distinct shows each featuring homosexual characters and people of color in lead roles (but still no lesbians). It's disappointing that a network still needs to be commended for inclusiveness, but that's the reality of the world we live in.

If 'Friends' had been made in a less white-washed, politically correct period, I'd like to believe it would look like 'Happy Endings,' where an interracial couple and a snarky gay guy don't feel like tokenism so much as an honest illustration of what groups of friends look like today.

If you haven't given the show a chance yet, I urge you to check out the double-bill tonight (Wednesday, May 11, 10PM and 10:30PM ET on ABC) -- I guarantee you'll be entertained. You can also check out a couple of the more Max-centric episodes on Hulu below, if you live in the US.

If you're familiar with both 'Modern Family' and 'Happy Endings,' do you agree with my assessment, or do you identify more strongly with Mitchell and Cam than with Max?

Feel free to discuss your thoughts on both shows below -- but please keep it civil and avoid name-calling or baseless argument for argument's sake. Homophobic or insulting comments will be removed.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @LauinLA

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You've got it right on. I totally agree with you. I've never accepted "Modern Family" the way I have "Happy Endings" Definitely a much better show, makes me laugh out loud. Of course, now that I like it and watch it weekly, I'm sure ABC will go ahead and cancel it. Just a matter of time....

May 26 2011 at 10:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You kind of lost me at Cougar Town. I still watch it, but not with eager anticipation. I just keep hoping it can somehow pull out of the god-awful maudlin, annoying trajectory it's been following and possibly even make Jules into a character I don't hate.

But on to the two shows at hand. I love both shows. I know people like Cam and I know people like Max. It's not necessary to choose which is the "correct" way to portray a gay character. I do think you overlooked the fact that all the characters on Modern Family, not just the gay characters, are pretty over-the-top and yet they're all portrayed with more nuance and depth than is usual in a sitcom. We're not talking Jack and Karen here. And I don't think we want to go too far in suggesting that minority characters should be stock characters who "just happen to be" gay or black or Latin, as if gay or black or Latin people don't ever experience life in America in any ways that might be a little different from the ways stereotypical straight, white, middle-Americans do. By the way, what about race? You gave me the impression you were going to address that subject, but somehow you never got around to it.

"I personally know more Max-like gays who are not of the 6-pack/ripped up variety and who are not as career driven and successful as you usually see on television." Because Cam is ripped, career driven, and successful? Just say what you mean. You prefer Max because he's more stereotypically masculine, and more of a slob and a slacker than the more uptight and stereotypically "gay" Cam and Mitchell. That's fine. It's okay to like Max better. It's just that liking Max better isn't really morally superior or more modern and doesn't carry quite the significance you seem to think. It's really not necessary to choose. And perhaps this kind of match-up isn't really the best way to do t v criticism; it might be better to think about how characters and shows work in their own contexts.

The world has room for Cam and Mitchell *and* Max. So does television.

May 18 2011 at 12:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have such an issue with pieces like this. I LOVE happy endings, and i ADORE modern family, i may even like happy endings better than at least this season of modern family. And i am a gay man. I hate when people complain that kurt from glee is portrayed as too much of an effeminate character, smae goes for cam and mitchell. Ignoring the fact that there is a large part of the gay population whos identity very closely resembles those characters, and there are many who are just another guy who no one would assume was gay. But to think that Adam Pallys character is more modern becasue he acts like a dude is overwraught. Hes as desexualized as any gay character, just because his gayness isnt a punchline doesnt mean hes modern. None of these characeters should be offensive, theyre all part of a larger gay identity. I dont think were likely to see adam pally making out with a male characer in a way that they would show penny, nor would we ever get the delightful "walked in on sex" scene the dunffys have but with cam and mitchell. Im told brothers and sisters is the only show right now to have a modern honest gay character who has sex who holds hands, who plays basketball but watched glee( but i couldnt be paid to watch that boring show) but glee for all its silly ness nad dishonesty does engage in a truly realistic fully rounded young gay character. Both ends of the spectrum are disheartening, and for a gay kid in highschool to turn on tv and see the super muscular imposing supposedly gay teddy on 90210 could ring a little false, although they obviously exist too. its all about giving them a real sexual identity that i believe would brin gay characters into modernity. Happy endings is as antiquated as Modern Family in this area. heres hoping for season 2 that changes.

May 18 2011 at 12:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Happy Endings came bursting out of the gate with the first couple of episodes but the last few have not been that great. The Jazz Kwon Do was just silly, not funny at all. I love the dialogue in HE though, lots of asides and pop culture references, some obscure (Elliot Smith). I love them both just not burst out laughing funny every week.

May 16 2011 at 11:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Eludium Q36

I'm pretty much with you on this Laura, though maybe for different reasons. Happy Endings smashed out of the gate with really funny dialogue much as Modern Family and Cougar Town did in their first seasons. But in their second seasons, both Modern Family and Cougar Town barely get a chuckle from me, in fact, Cougar is more drama than comedy with the plot lines it's pursuing. So I really hope that Happy gets a full season order and renewal. I'll stick with Modern but I mostly FF thru Cougar now and it's only a matter of time before I stop watching it.

May 13 2011 at 5:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just finished reading other comments...OMG Cougar Town...worst acting in the world. I don't know where you people live but Brothers and Sisters would win most pretentious! And so was your article. Yes, sometimes I laugh out loud to Modern Family and at times they're trying too hard especially the traditional family. As far as I'm concerned non of these shows have the staying power of That 70s Show or Family Guy!!!

May 12 2011 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

OMG...let's find a problem where one doesn't exist!!! Based on the other shows you like...you're taste is obvious. I don't criticize it but, you're trying too hard to justify it. Modern Family stereo types everyone...making them all likeable. That's the secret to a popular show. I don't know that they're trying to make somekind of a statement and you are.

May 12 2011 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Modern Family guys just seem older to me than Max. Therefore their interests and experiences would be different. Max reflects his generation...sexuality is just something else about him.

I love Casey Wilson...she's terrific in this and I hope she has a loooong go at this...

May 12 2011 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Totally LOVE "Happy Endings"... Your right that there are few shows that actually make you laugh out loud and this is definitely one of them!!! I hope ABC knows they absolutely have a winner!!! Keep it up!!!!

May 12 2011 at 2:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Bryans Fontaine

Casey Wilson redefines adorable!!!! She steals the show!!!

May 12 2011 at 2:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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