By Jack Schwartz
Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula
[3.5 minute read]
It’s no secret that when the pandemic forced us to spend more time indoors, many people quickly turned to streaming TV shows and movies to keep themselves entertained. Unsurprisingly, streaming giants like Netflix boasted huge increases in usage in 2020. Increasing screen time is an experience that I would say is nearly universal at this time. Shows that were released on Netflix last March, such as Tiger King, quickly became trending topics. Suddenly, Joe Exotic was everywhere, and everyone was talking about his zoo full of big cats. As I thought about how to carry out my first session as a Conversation Partner, I reflected on how television has given people of all different backgrounds common topics and themes to discuss, especially over the past year. Of course, students in the United States have rather different streaming options than students studying in China. If you take the time to compare streaming platforms, however, identifying pieces of media that are accessible to people in multiple countries is definitely a possibility.
Of the American TV shows accessible to both me (in Los Angeles) and one of the students participating in the Conversation Partner program (in Beijing), Modern Family stands out as a great choice. The ABC sitcom, set in a Los Angeles suburb documents three very different couples and their families. Many of the relationships between these families were rather tense in the pilot episode, and the show revolves around their growth and increasing connectedness. Rewatching the 2009 pilot episode of the show in 2021 was quite interesting, as the qualities that once made the families stand out have since become great topics of conversation.
Take, for instance, husbands Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who in the pilot episode are nervous to reveal their adopted daughter to the rest of the family. This representation in a broadcast network was quite groundbreaking in 2009. Rewatching the pilot episode in 2021 provides an opportunity for having an open conversation about the shifting cultural attitudes towards adoption by same-sex couples and the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights in general.
Another relationship that sparks conversations is the one between Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and Jay (Ed O’Neill). Gloria is an immigrant from Colombia and is over 20 years younger than her 63-year-old husband. The pair are far from the average relationship one might have expected to see on-screen in 2009. Gloria’s relationship with the rest of Jay’s family is layered with jokes at her expense about her accent and language barrier in the pilot. In later episodes, she has more open and honest conversations with members of the family about her experience as an immigrant and the challenges posed by not being a native English speaker. Seeing the rest of the family’s growth, compassion, and understanding is a heartwarming component of the show’s trajectory.
Overall, Modern Family is a great television show choice because it succinctly captures shifting American norms and values throughout the 2010s. On a wider level, rewatching the first season has revealed to me how valuable American media can be in sparking conversations with other students. Although students participating in the program might be located all throughout the world due to online learning and COVID-19, identifying which shows are licensed for streaming in their respective countries proves immensely beneficial. If you have a chance, try streaming Modern Family or another TV show and ask Conversation Leaders if they’ve seen these shows!
Jack is a senior earning an M.S. in Applied Economics and Econometrics through the progressive degree program. Born and raised in Washington, DC, he’s loved getting to spend the last few years in Los Angeles and has driven across the United States five times. From scuba diving to writing movie reviews for the school newspaper, he tries to take advantage of everything Southern California has to offer. He studied abroad in Madrid last spring and is always looking to improve his Spanish.