Ed O'Neill plays patriarch Jay Pritchett, a man who's made his bundle, divorced his first wife, and finally found true happiness with Gloria, a much younger Colombian woman who seems to have bounced off the set of a risqué Univision quiz show. Her 10-year-old son Manny, who exhibits many of the traits of a 30-year-old Lothario, completes the first of the unusual family units. The Dunphy household comprises Jay's daughter Claire, her dorky husband Phil, and their three kids, Haley, Alex, and Luke. Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) fancies himself a cool dad who's his kids' best friend. But despite his zealous best intentions he's really just an embarrassment, sometimes most of all to Claire (Julie Bowen), who often treats him like her fourth child. Household three is occupied by Jay's gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who bring home an adopted Vietnamese baby in the pilot episode for them and everyone else to fawn over. The comic combinations of controlled nuclear family explosions precipitated by this episodic mix are consistently filled with an unending string of gags that burn the full range of comic fuel from gentle smiles to full-on guffaws. There are nominal story threads (we're not in the land of Seinfeld's "no hugging, no learning" edict), but most of the entertainment comes from throwaway lines and the kind of interaction that feels more like expert improv tossed off by seasoned pros than it does scripted TV farce. There's also a fair amount of precisely executed physical comedy, especially around the Dunphy household (Ty Burrell is highly skilled in the practice of bodily buffoonery), and the show never shies away from either playing up or laying to rest the stereotypes and clichés it brings up with good-natured abandon. Gay people act gay! Latin people are hot-blooded! Kids are stupid! Parents are clueless!
It's also fun to see some famous faces appear as guests or in cameo roles--Edward Norton, Minnie Driver, Elizabeth Banks, Benjamin Bratt, Shelley Long--all of whom clearly get the joke and are having a great time joining in (especially good is Fred Willard, who was born to play Phil's dad). The four-disc set has a limited number of special features that include some back story bits about the actors and how some of the show's themes developed from the real lives of the writers' real modern families. Best of all are extended scenes and outtakes from the family interview segments that only enhance the casual hilarity that rolls so effortlessly from character to character throughout each episode. It's easy to look forward to time spent in the company of the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan. --Ted Fry