Sarah Anne Lloyd, 2011.
The Dinner: It didn't seem too long ago that a premade dinner at the average grocery-store deli entailed little more than a bag of half-soggy, half-rock-hard fried potato wedges and a pound of breading loosely attached to an inconsequential amount of chicken meat. With healthy eats moving further and further to the front of the average Seattle family's consciousness, it's no surprise that more supermarkets are eschewing heat lamps and Jalapeno Poppers for less physically harrowing options. Leading the pack in the lazy-health-nut revolution is PCC Natural Markets, offering a wide variety of dinner options for the cooking-impaired.Sure, PCC offers fried chicken that probably doesn't resemble the standard dried-to-oblivion fare you can pick up at less-ambitious grocery delis, but they also offer all sorts of grilled meaty goodness (like the Rosemary Chicken) that, while still a little on the dry side, will in all likelihood cooperate with your long-term goals of heart functionality a lot better.
The sides aren't just there to fill your stomach with artificial food matter, either. The Mac and Cheese was a clear cut above your usual goopy tin-vat mess, retaining a firm bite as it aged instead of collapsing into some sort of hyper-starchy Cheez Whiz broth. The Asparagus Bread Pudding put your average microwavable Chicken Pot Pie to shame, and a solid texture with rich flavor did more than enough to make it formidable among any other quick homestyle fix. As for the potato salad? While I made a blood oath to adorable grandmothers nationwide never to enjoy a potato salad with olives in it, PCC does a decent job of turning the vintage calorie giant into something a little less dependent on mayonnaise and other egg products.
The Entertainment: As this TV year's wave of finales winds down (and I slowly begin to regret starting this column right before summer), ABC's runaway hit comedy Modern Family will end its second season tonight with a climactic, Rob Huebel-tinged bang.
Those not familiar with Modern Family may read the cast of characters with a decidedly skeptical murmur, as the show has a staggering commitment to diversity usually only seen in Saturday-morning cartoons or corporate PowerPoint presentations.
Basically, family patriarch Jay Pritchett is on his second marriage with the much younger Colombian bombshell Gloria Delgado, inheriting a son-in-law in the charmingly delicate Manny. This May-December relationship at first irks his two fully grown children from his first marriage: Claire, a high-strung homemaker and mother of three, and Mitchell, a high-strung lawyer and adoptive father of one. Mitchell raises the indomitably adorable Vietnamese expatriate Lily with same-sex partner Cameron Tucker in one of the more layered, respectable representations of a homosexual partnership you're going to see on network television today. In what doubles as the most "conventional" and most chaotic central relationship of the series, Claire is the mother of two teenaged girls and a hyperactive but usually agreeable little boy with dopey and charismatic real-estate agent Phil Dunphy.
Three family units within the expansive yet accessible Pritchett-Delgado-Dunphy-Tucker family tree drive the show's action, clearing up the initial skepticism of diversity for diversity's sake fairly quickly into the series as it deftly avoids most stereotypes in favor of building an ensemble of really solid, uncompromising characters. These strong characters allow the show to explore important, difficult questions on topics as varied as gender roles, coping with loss, and of course what "family" means in the 21st century--all without making viewers feel like they're being beaten over the head with public-service announcements.
Modern Family proves that when you build up likable, multifaceted characters and put them through hilarious trials with dramatic stakes, it will inspire much more commitment in audiences of all sorts of backgrounds than if you just shamelessly pandere to as many demographics as humanly possible by shoehorning in token minority characters that don't imminently move the show's plot forward.
Continuing with this pedigree of dodging common sitcom pitfalls, Modern Family barely wastes any time at all on ratings-grabby guest stars that are wedged into similar shows with little regard for how they actually fit the mood or momentum of the series. Even when Lady Gaga expressed interest as a walk-on during a season where Mitchell goes to one of her concerts, the creators knew better than to just cram the gargantuan public force of the artist at the end of an episode to tell the family they should all be themselves, regardless of how many people would tune in to lap it up.
Here, Modern Family's restraint allows for some really impressive celebrity tableaus when it does actually manage to work guest spots into the show--in the mid-'90s, who would've thought we'd see Ed "Al Bundy" O'Neill and Nathan Lane laugh over fluorescent cocktails? And who would've thought that the setup to that situation would seem so natural?
If I had one complaint for the series, it's the children. I'm not about to take potshots at child actors here, as the performances of everyone on this show are consistently on point. The problem is that while the grown-up characters keep within the same generally consistent tone the grand majority of the time, scenes between the children can sway wildly back and forth between the naive, calm melodrama of an after-school special to the rapid-fire banter of a more cynical cable sitcom, depending on which episode you're watching. There just seems to be a kind of jarring disconnect between "kid scenes" and the rest of the show, and not in the organically awkward way that could be justified by the kids growing up and changing.
The Pairing: As technology advances and the Michael Pollans of the world repeatedly explain to us how we're all filthy, bottom-feeding vermin, the attitudes toward takeout food and television are slowly but surely changing in both producer and consumer alike. Challenging shows like The Wire and Mad Men offer more than just empty calories for the eye, while more and more vegetarian eateries like Plum and Georgetown Liquor Company branch out from standard elitist fare into places you could bring your oh-so-slightly-racist grandmother without fearing she'd be pummeled to death with a bike lock.
As consumers of both mediums start to think more critically about what goes into their head-holes, I wouldn't be surprised if we started to see fresh produce and tempeh cutlets get shipped in compostable containers with the same vigor as sickly sweet, styrofoam-packaged chunks of General Tso's Chicken, but it's probably still a long time coming. Until then, with Modern Family's agenda-free laughs and PCC's deliciously accessible deli, we can at least take solace in the fact that substance is edging more and more into the mainstream.