Widgets Magazine

Remote Nomad: The return of the comedy Jedi

Fresh off its Emmy win, ABC's Modern Family debuted with an oddly forgettable premier, while Glee kicked off its second season with its now trademark inconsistency. (Courtesy of ABC)

Put away your Bowflex – the fall comedies have returned and are ready to give your abdominals a workout. The two standouts from last year – “Modern Family” and “Glee,” with the former capturing the Emmy for Best New Comedy but splitting acting and directing accolades with the latter – returned this week to resounding audience numbers.

Though I’m skeptical of the argument that the Emmys matter enough to translate into viewers, the ratings for this week suggest otherwise: Wednesday’s “Modern Family’s” 12.6 million just edged out the 12.3 million for “Glee” on Tuesday. These numbers certainly affirm both shows’ popularity, but the weak beginnings to their sophomore seasons may have failed to live up to the expectations of new audiences.

“Glee” set out to revisit the audition format of the show’s seminal pilot, for which Ryan Murphy won a directing Emmy this August. In a surprise turn of events, however, the premiere was directed by Brad Falchuk, and its writing was credited to Ian Brennan, the other two-thirds of the “Glee” triumvirate. That’s not to say I expected the pilot to be any worse when those credits rolled – the inconsistency of Glee’s first 22 episodes disabused me of any logical or formulaic approach to predicting which episodes I will like. With “Glee,” you simply can’t afford to be a fair-weather fan the way you can in sports, simply because you’ll miss moments like Charice Pempengco killing “Listen” from “Dreamgirls” in this week’s episode, and you’ll be out of the loop when people quote Brittany’s deadpan quips such as “Stop the violence.”

The episode itself was disappointment. Thematically, nothing has changed since last year – Gleeks are uncool as ever; money is tight at McKinley and the teens are schizophrenic in their romance. The episode made no attempt to ease new viewers into the show and its shoddily crafted web of relationships, as we spent the majority of the episode from the perspective of the new female football coach, Bieste. Except for Brittany and the revelation of Mike Chang’s abs, the episode was more cruel than funny. From Rachel’s under-described plot against Charice (where was the classic “Glee” cut to a shot of the crack house?) to the mediocrity of the new guy, I was wholly underwhelmed and disoriented.

I attended an event in LA this summer at which the Glee writers spoke, and, in hindsight, their disarmingly charming demeanor masked a certain complacency about the show’s structure, themes and characters. The show’s success is undeniable, but someone needs to lay down the law with these guys, though not before next week’s Britney/Brittany episode.

I also attended a talk with the writers of “Modern Family,” who effused the same unexpected humor and sentimental allegiance to family as their little sitcom that could. Many have called the show’s pilot the best of the last five years, but the premiere on Wednesday faltered with its “in medias res” introduction.

Although the first season provided us with great bookends in the pilot and finale, this newest episode seemed insignificant. Not only were the families kept apart, but the characters also felt surprisingly materialistic, with the castle and the car dominating the screen more than the actors themselves. The message of the episode was “we, as families and a show, are growing up so fast!” That realization, however, washed over the parents instead of the viewers, as things like the car or Manny’s girlfriend triggered it.

The humor on Modern Family is so nuanced that I do have trouble diagnosing my problems with a particular episode. The best adjective I can use to describe last night’s episode is muted. The high stakes of moments from season one, such as the “Lion King” allusion, Luke’s birthday party and even the iPad, made these characters simultaneously unreal in their seriousness and familiar in their unique obsessions. I’m confident there are better episodes coming; I’m just surprised the team behind “Modern Family” wanted to start on this note.

Ironically, pilots or premieres are often the least accurate reflections of a show’s future – take “Community” or “Cougar Town.” With comedies, however, particularly the more sitcom-y ones that refuse to conform to season-long arcs, it can be hard to justify scheduling your life around them.

WHAT TO WATCH NEXT WEEK

Sunday at 9 p.m.: Premiere of “Dexter” on Showtime. Will special guest star Julia Stiles save the last dance for Michael C. Hall?

Tuesday at 8 p.m.: Premiere of “No Ordinary Family.” Julie Benz, formerly of “Dexter,” takes up with a more normal husband, Michael Chiklis, in this more adult, but not necessarily better, version of “The Incredibles.”

Tuesday at 8 p.m.: Britney Spears guest stars on “Glee”!