Workplace comedies like the office, it's sometimes said, are really family comedies--only about families of people with almost nothing in common, thrown together by circumstance. Thing is, that often describes actual families as well. So it's only fitting that the funniest new family comedy of the year, ABC's Modern Family (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), is shot in the same mockumentary style as The Office, with a similar mix of hilarity and heart.
It's a neat approach, one that emphasizes how understanding the people closest to you--the father who takes a much younger second wife, the defensive gay brother who comes home with an adopted baby from Vietnam, or your newly contrary teenage daughter--can sometimes feel like an anthropology project.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Modern Family is how many laughs it gets out of the most ordinary of its three couples: Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), overscheduled and driven by competing parenting impulses. She wants to compensate for her wild childhood. "If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half-naked," she says, "I've done my job." He wants desperately to be cool, mortifying his kids by memorizing every dance move in High School Musical and asserting his (faulty) knowledge of text-message-speak ("WTF: 'Why the Face?'").
Claire's old-fashioned father Jay and his passionate Colombian bride Gloria, meanwhile, light up the screen because of the inspired pairing of character actor Ed O'Neill and comic bombshell Sofia Vergara. It's Jay's son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet)--the least conventional couple--who have the most familiar relationship, squabbling and correcting each other as comfortably as retirees on their golden anniversary.
When they spring their adopted baby on the family and the whole messy brood welcomes her--"She's one of us now! Lemme see the little pot sticker!" Jay declares--it's a perfect ending for a promising pilot. That's what family means: the second you join, it's as if they've known you forever. Then you spend the rest of your lives surprising one another.