Place matters: Parenthood vs. Modern Family

In the last month or so, I’ve become a sort of a fan of “Parenthood,” which, for those less televised than me, is a show on NBC. I’m sorry to say that I’m a pretty bad fan. As in, I watch old episodes on Hulu when something like the Snowpocalypse blesses me with extra time, but, not knowing how to connect the television we keep in our closet to an antenna, I never watch it when it airs and am prepared to have all you real fans rant about me when the show is cancelled.

However, even as a less than dedicated viewer, I am aware of last season’s tv critic comparathon between “Parenthood” and ABC’s “Modern Family.” I won’t embarrass myself with my own attempt to compare the shows on comedic or artistic merit, but I would like to offer a humble place-based analysis.

Witness, please, this scene from “Parenthood”:

What I like most about this show isn’t the depth of the characters or the creativity of the shots, but what you might call the “unique imagability” of the scenes. There’s so much character in the houses and the gardens; the grandparents’ house is like something out of Fine Homebuilding, and I look forward to the dinner scenes not because the cockles of my heart are warmed by all that family camaraderie but because I like the patio furniture and the candles. I tell you, I was sadder than Crosby when he sold the houseboat for a generic apartment. There’s something real and convincing about the scenes of “Parenthood” that makes them feel like actual places with histories and legacies, places enlivened by the weight of lived experience.

Contrast that with “Modern Family”:

The rooms in “Modern Family” are like backdrops in an L.L. Bean catalog: generic, dull and designed not to be noticed. They’re just background images over which human stories are played out. Everything in “Modern Family” happens in placeless suburbia; the field the cast stand in on the poster could be anywhere, and the same goes for the houses. This is fine, of course, if you like dialogue and plot and humor (and I am a sucker for dialogue and plot and humor), but it doesn’t find its way into my Hulu queue very quickly.

In the end, “Modern Family” and “Parenthood” aren’t all that different. They’re both about wealthy extended families living unrealistically near one another, sharing big family meals and complaining about how their gruff Vietnam vet patriarchs have damaged them all. But the difference of place is the difference between the Champs-Élysées and the main drag in your local mall, between Pike Place Market and a Wal-Mart. So sure, argue about which show captures “the frustrations of parenting … with moments of awkward connection, goofiness, relief and joy” most accurately, but I’m happiest with wide-plank flooring, cedar siding and Black-eyed Susans in the garden.

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