On February 22, the cast and crew of Modern Family wrapped their 250th and final episode, to be aired on April 8, thus concluding an 11-season run — the first five seasons of which earned the series consecutive Emmys for Best Comedy (only the second sitcom in history to do so).
It’s difficult to believe that it’s been over a decade since the first promos and previews of the new series began appearing on the air, foretelling of a different kind of sitcom on the way. Until that point, I had found myself torn between naming either The Honeymooners or All in the Family as my all-time favorite sitcom (not that anyone has ever asked me).
Modern Family changed that.
The first episode, written by TV veterans Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, aired on September 23, 2009. The pilot script originally carried the name My American Family. Levitan once explained that the original backstory of the show presented the main characters being filmed for a fly-on-the-wall documentary by a camera crew led by a fictitious Dutch filmmaker living with Jay’s family as an exchange student — and who had developed a crush on Claire (while Mitchell had a crush on him). As Levitan’s and Lloyd’s brainstorming progressed, various ideas for the show came and went; they eventually felt this extended backstory was unnecessary, and scrapped it. Lloyd prefers to look at the show as “a family show done documentary-style.”
The pilot episode sets the tone of the show as it introduces us to what appears to be three families going about their lives: Gay couple Mitchell Pritchett and Cam Tucker on a return flight from Vietnam with their newly adopted baby Lilly; Jay Pritchett, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Pritchett’s Closets, his young Colombian bombshell of a new wife Gloria, and her metrosexual son Manny; Real estate agent Phil Dunphy (who claims to be a “cool dad,” but is far from it), his harried, uptight wife Claire, and their three teen and pre-teen kids Haley, Alex, and Luke (Alex being the genius of the siblings, with Haley and Luke residing on the other end of the intellectual spectrum).
The premiere episode rolls along before throwing us its ingenious curve, by showing all of the characters we’ve been introduced to arriving at Mitch and Cam’s for dinner, revealing that they all comprise a single, extended family, with Jay as patriarch. They’re unaware, however, that they’re about to meet the family’s new member, Lilly, via Cam’s dramatic, Lion King-style presentation (Phil considers Lilly’s name, prompting him to ask, “Isn’t that gonna be hard for her to say?”). By the end of the episode, we’ve come to know a good deal about all ten characters, their quirks and foibles, and how they relate to each other — for better or worse.
We also see the series’ first trademark “interview” segments in this episode, in which family members in various combinations periodically take part in brief interview segments, as they sit on their respective living room sofas and address the camera directly, to speak about the events we’ve either just witnessed, or are most likely to see shortly. During the “action” scenes that move each story along, the characters treat us to sideways glances and/or mortified stares at the camera, breaking the “fourth wall,” much to the same hilarious effect first perfected by Oliver Hardy in the classic Laurel & Hardy films over 80 years ago.
Yet Modern Family has always walked a razor-thin line, of having its characters aware that they’re being filmed, yet never overindulging in the conceit, such as by having them turn to the camera mid-scene to comment on the action within that scene. A character, though, would often do so during an abrupt cutaway to their sofa interview, quickly followed by a return to the scene. To me, this is sitcom bliss.
In addition, each episode along the way has included a generous helping of throwaway lines, word-play, bits of business going on in the background (if you’re watching carefully), sight gags that often go without comment, and, again, those all-telling looks to the camera. And, it should be mentioned, the show hasn’t been afraid to toss in an occasional, clever, if somewhat politically-incorrect line or gag (Hallelujah!) without Western Civilization crumbling to the ground. The creative team has obviously always preferred to think of viewers as being mature enough to get a joke without launching a boycott campaign in response.
Most importantly, of course, has been the development of the characters as real people, with their own strengths, weaknesses, insecurities, and neuroses that have made them so endearing to us. Many of the most energetic episodes have been those involving the entire family gathering together, whether for their weekly dinner at Jay and Gloria’s, a school recital or sporting event, a birthday party gone terribly awry, or other occasions, big and small. As a grumpy Jay once growled, “Geez, the Kennedy’s don’t get together as often as we do!”
Dedicated fans of the show have seen the generation of kids grow into young adults, the arrival of Jay and Gloria’s son Joe, and that of Haley & Dylan’s twins, Poppy and George. We’ve seen family members experience various modes of employment, a number of business ventures (successful and otherwise),relationships with significant others, as well as mourning the passing of a few recurring characters. The show has managed to strike an amazing balance between ending episodes with moments of sincere family warmth, and those that decide to toss in a closing dose of irony, or even cynicism. During rare moments when we fear it might venture a wee bit too far into sentimentality, it could abruptly yank us back with a sight gag or line of dialogue, as if to say, “no, not this time!”
We’ve shared holidays with the Pritchett/Dunphys (including memorable Halloweens, Thanksgivings, and Christmases), high school graduations, even a few health scares, as well as family vacations spanning the globe from a Wyoming dude ranch to Hawaii, Australia, Las Vegas, New York, and Paris.
Then there are the assorted friends, neighbors, in-laws, and ex-spouses who have made periodic but memorable appearances in the Pritchett/Dunphy universe: Haley’s first boyfriend and eventual husband Dylan — slow-witted, but earnest and devoted; Mitch and Cam’s flamboyant, wedding planner friend Pepper (played by Nathan Lane, who earned three Emmy nominations for his role); the couple’s promiscuous party girl friend Sal (Elizabeth Banks); Phil’s obnoxious real estate nemesis Gil Thorpe (Rob Riggle); Andy (Adam DeVine), Jay and Gloria’s “manny” for baby Joe — and one-time love interest for Haley; the Dunphy’s crotchety old neighbor Walt, (Philip Baker Hall) with whom Luke developed an unlikely friendship; Jay’s New Age ex-wife Dede (Shelley Long), with her history of wreaking havoc at family gatherings; Gloria’s suave but hedonistic ex-husband Javier (Benjamin Bratt); Phil’s happy-go-lucky, pun-loving father Frank (Fred Willard); Cam’s Missouri farm family…and that’s only a partial list.
With all of the comedic highs and lows the extended family has experienced through the years, one especially significant highlight came during season 3, with Mitchell & Cam’s wedding, taking place in a two-part episode, after California legally recognized gay marriage (but before the Supreme Court’s historic nationwide ruling). After a series of logistical setbacks on the wedding day, driving the organizer, Pepper, to a near-breakdown, the ceremony finally finds a venue at Jay’s swanky golf club. What makes this family event stand out, and what would have been unthinkable on a sitcom just a few years before, is the matter-of-fact approach by the Dunphy/Pritchetts/Tuckers to the same-sex marriage — the exceptions being the amusing but very human efforts of Jay, and Cam’s father Merle, openly struggling to wrap their old-school mindset around the concept of their sons marrying each other. Still, all ends well, with lots of happy and teary-eyed faces, as Phil (as an online-ordained officiate) performs the ceremony.
We’ve also seen Phil and Claire renew their own vows to cap off the Hawaii episode, in a surprise ceremony Phil hastily arranged to ease Claire’s regrets over their quick, pregnancy-inspired civil ceremony two decades earlier. It’s worth mentioning that the more ambitious vacation episodes managed to capture the atmosphere of the locales, while giving all of the characters screen time for their individual adventures, without the need of 2-part or 3-part storylines spanning as many weeks, as some sitcoms have done in the past. Sometimes, less is more.
Among other comic high points during the series’ run was an especially clever and timely episode in season 6, titled “Connection Lost,” co-written and directed by Steve Levitan. The episode reflects how our reliance on social media and its devices have become so integral to our lives. Throughout the episode, the family communicates with each other solely via their laptop and smartphone screens, as panic escalates from a series of misunderstandings concerning Haley’s possible elopement to Las Vegas.
It’s no easy task to encapsulate here the 11-year run of a classic sitcom such as Modern Family, with its flawed but well-meaning characters, and its comedy style ranging from character-based dialogue to all-out, door-slamming farce (with frequent combinations of the two). So, consider this more of a loving, appreciative good-bye to a remarkably consistent, funny — and yes, sometimes touching — show about a truly modern family, with whom we’ve had the great joy to share our Wednesday nights for so long.
Stay tuned for more thoughts following the finale episode…