Is ‘Modern Family’ Trying to Become More Modern?

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Last night, on the fifth-season premiere of Modern Family, longtime gay couple Cameron and Mitchell got engaged. This is the closest the show has gotten to making what could be called a political statement — the episode begins with the two celebrating the Supreme Court’s reversal of DOMA back in June — and despite a few moments of actual solid commentary (patriarch Jay Pritchett says something about people obtaining “gay marriage licenses,” to which his grandson replies, “I think they’re just marriage licenses”), the episode was pretty agenda-free, focusing more on Cam and Mitch’s bumbling attempts to out-propose each other with the help of the family. Considering the show’s somewhat tame and sexless treatment of the couple, could this indicate a move on Modern Family‘s part to depict them as an actual, normal gay couple?

I’ll admit that I’ve always been dubious about the show’s watering-down of gay normativity to appeal to a wide audience of Americans. It was a big enough deal to see the two men kiss on screen in the second season, so the notion that the show would force a gay marriage plot onto the couple in response to a particularly ridiculous campaign spearheaded by the ACLU didn’t seem promising. Back in May, I wrote the following in response to the ACLU’s campaign:

It…says a lot about wedding culture in this country, a culture that is starting to absorb the LGBT communities. Weddings on television are typically used as a ratings grab and, often, a plot device for a series finale… The underlying notion of a wedding as the ultimate achievement is ridiculous, and that’s where all people — straight, gay, queer, male, female, transgender, what have you — should find the ACLU’s suggestion that two fictional characters be married in order to make a statement old-fashioned and, in a way, puritanical.

I can commend the episode’s openly gay writer, Jeffrey Richman, for avoiding a forced narrative. Instead, the script pokes fun at the historic and groundbreaking Supreme Court decision as much as it applauds it — a running joke throughout the episode involves baby Joe Pritchett spitting up on Sophia Vergara every time gay marriage is mentioned. And rather than awkwardly showcasing current political events in the show’s plot line, the episode puts its main focus on the relationship between Cameron and Mitchell; the DOMA decision is just an impetus to take the characters’ relationship into a different narrative.

And while the eventual proposal is subdued and not at all a spectacle — after a huge build-up, Cameron and Mitchell find themselves accepting each others’ silent proposal while both are conveniently down on one knee changing a tire together — the scene still lacks a realistic conclusion. They say yes, smile, and the show cuts to black, avoiding any sort of physical affection between the pair, which has been Modern Family‘s major fault in depicting their relationship throughout its run. While there is a joke early in the episode about who proposes to who when there are two men, the episode still relies on the classic visual representation of a proposal: a man down on one knee, except this time it’s two men, both down on their knees. But why can’t this be followed by a physical display of their affection and happiness about spending the rest of their lives together? That’s probably still too crazy for a network TV show.

It’ll be interesting to see how the show deals with the gay marriage plot, especially in the eventual ceremony. Will we get the chance to see Cameron and Mitchell kiss again to seal their marriage? Probably — maybe it’ll be a good Sweeps Week coup! But despite the show’s efforts to bring in a plot line inspired by current events, Modern Family still suffers from a complete lack of subversiveness, to say nothing of its claims to modernity. If the show wants to normalize the gay experience (albeit the wealthy, white gay experience), it should take into consideration that happy gay couples — weather they are married or not — actually touch each other.