'Modern Family' review: One big happy

ABC has been without a coherent comedy strategy for several years now, launching several lame sitcoms and having good ones (like "Samantha Who?" and "Miss Guided") die from a lack of support.

That could change this season. The network has put together a pretty strong block of comedies on Wednesday nights, and it's anchored by one of the fall's brightest new shows, "Modern Family."

I've already gone on record as saying "Community" is the fall's best new comedy, and I'm not going to back off of that. But "Modern Family," which premieres at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, is a pretty close second -- and with its acutely observed humor about the people we're obligated to love (and who usually, if not always, deserve it), it could have an even broader appeal.

"Modern Family" is shot like a documentary, which is becoming a somewhat tired comedy format but is unobtrusive enough here to work pretty well. We're introduced at the outset to three very different families: Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell), who've been married 16 years and have three adolescent kids; Jay (Ed O'Neill), who's newly married to the much younger Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and has taken in her 11-year-old son (Rico Rodriguez); and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), a gay couple who have just adopted a baby.

We learn before the end of Wednesday's premiere that all these people are, in fact, one big and not quite happy family -- Claire and Mitchell are Jay's children. The show initially wanted that detail kept under wraps, but ABC promos have since spoiled it. The discovery about two-thirds of the way into the pilot does, however, help make for a more cohesive show and quickly begins to explain why these people are the way they are.

The broad outlines of the characters are pretty familiar: Claire is overscheduled and judgmental (and during the pilot, Bowen was very pregnant -- hence all the oversized sweaters and strategically placed props); Phil wants to be the "cool dad" but isn't; Jay's gruff and a little distant with his kids; Mitchell and Cameron bicker. But it's in the details where "Modern Family," created by sitcom veterans Christopher Lloyd ("Frasier") and Steven Levitan ("Just Shoot Me"), really shines.

Little moments like Phil explaining how adept he is at texting ("LOL, laugh out loud. OMG, oh my God. WTF, why the face") or Cameron insisting on a "sports guy chest bump" to fire Mitchell up before the rest of the family arrives provide big laughs, as does Jay's realization that Gloria (and Manny) may be more of a handful than he anticipated.

The cast is uniformly strong; Burrell, Stonestreet and Vergara get the bulk of the punchlines, but all three are very well-matched with their respective set-up man or woman. Even the kids, which can sometimes be the weak link in family shows, are good comedians, and Rodriguez is a born scene-stealer.

"Modern Family" has been getting a big promotional push from ABC, and it looks like the network has made a good bet. It's a great anchor for the network's new comedy block.

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