ABC's Modern Family (premiering Wednesday, 9/8c) is one of the funniest new sitcoms, hence its inclusion in our list of Editors' Picks for the fall. What makes it so special? Read on.
1. Ed O'Neill As You've Never Seen Him Before: O'Neill plays Jay Pritchett, a mellow patriarch who has recently taken a younger bride, Gloria (a hilarious Sofia Vergara), a fiery Latina stereotype from the "No. 1 village in all of Colombia for murders." Their May-December romance follows familiar territory (he's mistaken for her father and buys trendy clothes to appear younger, for example), but the slightly exasperated chemistry between this oddball pair is really charming. "I'm a little in over my head with this one," O'Neill says of Vergara. "It's kind of fun to try to keep up."
2. Ty Burrell: As bumbling dad Phil Dunphy, Burrell (Back to You) is the master of ineptitude. His harried wife, Claire (Boston Legal's Julie Bowen), was a bad kid herself, so she plays the disciplinarian to Phil's trying-too-hard, "cool" dad. The genius part: He thinks he's got things under control. I mean, after all, he knows all the dances from High School Musical and can text-message using hip abbreviations. (According to Phil, "WTF?" stands for "Why the Face?") Who wouldn't want a cool dad like that? "The part is just a very slight magnification of me," Burrell reports.
3. The Kids: Sitcom kids are often a motley crew of muggers and mannequins. Not so the four children among Modern Family's ensemble. "These are not kids that we feel like we have to write away from or use as props," says executive producer Steven Levitan (Just Shoot Me). "They're the antagonists of our stories." Alex Dunphy (Ariel Winter) is a brainy, snarky middle child who thinks it would be "cool" if her older sister got pregnant and her mom pretended it was hers. Gloria's son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is a sensitive romantic whose inherent bravery bristles against his new stepfather's more coarse nature.
4. The Gay Couple: Claire's brother, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) have recently returned from Vietnam, where they have adopted a baby girl. "They're in many ways the most traditional couple," says Levitan. "Cam is a stay-at-home parent. Mitchell goes to work. They're fairly conservative." That doesn't mean Cameron doesn't have his moments of flamboyance — like when he presents baby Lily to the family for the first time. (Hint: He scores the moment to The Lion King's "Circle of Life.")
5. The Mockumentary Style: After Christopher Guest and The Office practically perfected the genre, you'd think anything that came after it would be derivative. But the clever editing between interviews with the family and character-revealing backstories prove to be winning. For example, when Cameron tells the camera that he gained weight in anticipation of Lily's arrival — a freak physiological compensation, he says — the scene immediately cuts to a night-vision sequence of him getting busted binge-eating in the pantry. "When you're doing a family show, it's very easy for it to be sugary and schmaltzy," says Levitan. "We thought the documentary form really was a nice way to add some grit to it and make it not quite so syrupy."