A television favorite ends its season without a glance at the competition, assured in its place as the best of its kind. No, I’m not talking about “American Idol” (7 p.m., Fox), also wrapping up its season tonight, but “Modern Family” (8 p.m., ABC), simply the strongest network comedy around.
The best sitcoms have always been ensemble affairs where any cast member was capable of carrying the story for the episode, only to slide into the background in subsequent stories. This worked on comedies from “I Love Lucy” to “Will & Grace.” I was always impressed by how few episodes of “Seinfeld” revolved around the title character.
What sets “Modern Family” apart is the talent and most notably the comic timing of the younger players. The stars of many sitcoms, even the best sitcoms, seemed to follow W.C. Fields’ disdain for sharing scenes with children and canines. The Crane brothers on “Frasier” may have shared the furniture with a dog, but children were rarely in sight. “Seinfeld” used kids only rarely and usually as an absurd foil for George or Kramer’s outrageous antics. I was always amazed how a family-oriented show like “Everybody Loves Raymond” all but wrote the kids out of the picture. “Raymond” veteran Patricia Heaton has certainly written three “interesting” offspring into her latest series “The Middle,” but that comedy often seems to try just a tad too hard and lacks the effortless chemistry and impeccable scripts of “Modern Family.”
If you must name a first among equals in this ensemble, it would be Ed O’Neill as Jay. On a series where it seems every character, from his clueless son-in-law to his oddly precocious stepson, wants to dissect and share his feelings, Jay behaves as if his tear ducts have been removed. That’s what makes his emotional outbursts all the more funny. And touching.
Jay reached new depths of feelings this season on the Mother’s Day episode when the very smell of a meat sauce cooked from his mother’s recipe provoked unwanted waterworks.
But then again, that episode also belonged to Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Luke (Nolan Gould), Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Alex (Ariel Winter) whose conspiracy to blunt Claire’s (Julie Bowen) guilt trip was hatched in a scene performed with breezy, effortless charm.
It’s a treat to watch such young talent given such sophisticated material and hitting the lines out of the park. It’s way too early to say if we’re dealing with the next Jodie Fosters or Natalie Portmans here, but I certainly look forward to watching their careers unfold.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Brick must keep a summer journal on “The Middle” (7 p.m., ABC).
• “Nova” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) discusses secrets of the Parthenon.
• Travis departs for Hawaii on the season finale of “Cougar Town” (8:30 p.m., ABC).
• Amber strives to feed her family of six on less than $50 while Amanda tries to outsave her frugal grandmother on “Extreme Couponing” (8:30 p.m., TLC).
• A killer prefers crowds on “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” (9 p.m., CBS).
• A casino employee runs out of luck on “Law & Order: Los Angeles” (9 p.m., NBC).