There are certain traditions that we can count on in popular culture. Super Bowl parties. Oscar red carpet gawking. Beyoncé idolatry. MTV VMA hand-wringing. And every year, when the Primetime Emmys hand out their award for Outstanding Comedy Series, you can reliably depend on a nation of television viewers slapping their foreheads, gritting their teeth, and growling, “Jesus Christ, Modern Family AGAIN?!” And last night, as reliably as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, ABC’s family sitcom won the prize for the fifth straight year. It has won every year it’s been on the air. Why, oh why, does this keep happening?
Much of it can be explained away as typical Emmy behavior. Classic sitcoms have gone on impressive runs before: All In the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi won for three straight seasons each in the 1970s and early 1980s; 30 Rock won for its first three seasons at the end of the 2000s. But the closest precedent for Modern Family’s winning streak is dumb ol’ Frasier, which won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy in its first season and kept winning, for four more years. It was one of the most glaring examples of Emmy voters deciding they liked a show and sticking with it, continuing to award it, come what may (which, in this case, meant passing over The Larry Sanders Show and Mad About You, as well as Seinfeld and Friends, which each only won once, on either side of the Frasier reign).
But this is hardly unique to the Best Comedy category; as our own TV guru Pilot Viruet puts it, “The Emmys are like a picky child: afraid to try new things, sticking close to the bland, tasteless fodder it’s used to.” Part of the reason Breaking Bad didn’t start winning Best Drama until last year was because of Mad Men’s four-year run of the category, and The Sopranos didn’t win that award until its fifth season (past its prime, I’d argue) because of the dominance of The West Wing. So why do we continue to be surprised — and annoyed — by Emmy voters giving the same recognition, year after year, to a sitcom that has long gone stale?
It’s probably just a matter of expectation. All this talk of our current “Silver Age” of television is right on, and if the Best Drama winners haven’t encompassed quite as much of that excellence, there’s still been at least a smidge of variety to them — during Modern Family’s uninterrupted five-year streak, the Drama statue has gone to Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Homeland (first season, so that’s still a good call!). Now, take a deep breath and take in the shows that have gone un-awarded in Best Comedy during that period: Orange is the New Black, Louie, Veep, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Girls, Parks and Recreation, Nurse Jackie, and Silicon Valley. (I’m fine with The Big Bang Theory not winning anything.) Not even nominated, in the same period: Community, Enlightened, New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Trophy Wife, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, Raising Hope, and Party Down.
There are genuinely groundbreaking shows doing exciting things in television comedy right now, but the Emmy keeps going to the most toothless among them — one that apes the tropes of its betters (single camera, no laugh track, faux-doc format) and sands off the rough edges. And there is something vaguely maddening about how the self-congratulatory Modern Family seems to fancy itself as edgy, from the title on down, while primarily focusing on the foibles of upper-middle-class white people (aside from the hot foreign trophy wife, whose primary comedic contribution is a mangling of the English language). Placed alongside a genuinely subversive program like Orange is the New Black — which Netflix submitted as a comedy specifically to take advantage of a potentially weak field (and to steer clear of the inevitable Breaking Bad/True Detective showdown in the drama categories) — and you start to get a sense of how truly vanilla Modern Family is.
And when you get down to it, about the only thing that’s genuinely offensive about Modern Family is that it keeps winning this damn award. I’ll confess to putting it on every once in a while, when I’ve got laundry to fold or email inboxes to clean out; it’s background, comfort food, a formula carefully crafted and diligently maintained, an all-night McDonald’s where the menu never changes. It is the single-camera sitcom that even your scrapbooking aunt can love. But it’s not the best comedy on television. Not by a long, long shot.