Before “Modern Family,” television’s family sitcoms tended to be about traditional families. Mom. Dad. Kids. Sometimes grandparents.
If you think back to the very first episode of “Modern Family,” there was a surprise. The series began with seemingly unrelated scenes featuring three seemingly unrelated families: an older man, his much-younger wife and her son; a married couple and their three children; and a gay couple and their newly adopted baby. But, lo and behold, they were all part of one big “Modern Family.”
“Modern Family” finale
Following an hourlong retrospective Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ABC/Channel 4, the final two episodes of “Modern Family” air back to back at 8 and 8:30 p.m.
Before the show premiered in September 2009, Steve Levitan said that when he and his fellow co-creator/executive producer, Chris Lloyd, screened the pilot for friends and family, “even our friends who are writers and who are cynical” were “genuinely surprised” at the twist.
They were startled to learn that Jay (Ed O’Neill), Gloria (Sofia Vergara), Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Phil (Ty Burrell), Claire (Julie Bowen), Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter), Luke (Nolan Gould), Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) were all members of the same extended family.
“I think the family in America is changing,” Levitan said in 2009. “It comes in lots of different shapes and sizes now that it perhaps didn’t used to.”
Eleven years and almost 250 episodes later, the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan seems perfectly normal. Not perfect, by any means, but completely within the American mainstream. “I think all families are the same,” Vergara said.
All the characters have their flaws. But, as Ferguson pointed out, “The flaws of a relationship are more interesting than a perfect relationship. I think that’s more relatable.”
The show has always been relatable. Even if your family looks nothing like the one on “Modern Family,” there are elements that ring familiar — parent-child, spouse and sibling relationships. Which is probably because the characters and situations are drawn from the real-life families of Levitan, Lloyd and their team of writers.
“The biggest appeal of doing this show for Chris and I was just to delve into what is real at every stage of the game,” Levitan said. “What are the conversations that we’re having with our kids? With our wives? What are the funny situations that we are witnessing in our schools?”
One of the things Levitan saw at his kids’ school was older fathers with much-younger wives and children. And so began Jay and Gloria, who look like an odd couple at first glance. But viewers quickly overlooked that he is a quarter of a century older than she is, and that Jay is a reserved guy and Gloria is an emotional immigrant from Colombia — because they’re a couple who, remarkably, somehow made sense.
“We had chemistry from the beginning,” Vergara said.
Not only did Levitan and Lloyd and their writing teams mine their own families for stories, but the actors quickly learned that anything they told the writers could end up in an episode. The characters are fictional, but they all shared traits with the actors who played them.
Even before the show premiered, Burrell said it was ”kind of tragic or wonderful” that Phil Dunphy is “just a very slight magnification of me. It’s way, way too close to home.”
(You may recall that, in the pilot, Phil dances to a song from “High School Musical” to prove to his kids that he’s cool. “I had to pretend like I was embarrassed by having to do it when we actually shot it, when deep down I just was having a blast,” Burrell said — proving his own point about his similarities to his character.)
It’s almost hard to believe in 2020, but in 2009 it was a fairly big deal that one of the three couples in “Modern Family” is gay.
“I think it was revolutionary back then,” Ferguson said. “And I don’t think it’s as revolutionary now, which I think is a great thing.”
Lloyd and Levitan set out to make a show about how families have changed. And they decided immediately that they’d include a gay couple with a baby. “We knew several people like that,” Levitan said. “And as soon as we landed on that and locked it in, I remember saying to Chris, ‘Well, there goes Middle America.’”
He was ready for blowback. “I welcome criticism from the far right groups,” he said back in 2009.
And, yes, there was criticism from some of those groups. But Middle America embraced “Modern Family.” It was not just a critical darling, it was a broad-based hit from the day it debuted.
“We got zero blowback,” Levitan said. “They were embraced because here was this couple that their first priority was their baby. ... And they were funny.”
There were a lot of reasons “Modern Family” shouldn’t have worked. The disparate family members. The fact that sitcoms about families weren’t exactly hot at the time. And when the pilot was filmed, the cast included two 10-year-olds (Gould and Rodriguez), an 11-year-old (Winter), and an 18-year-old (Hyland) — and not one of them had much acting experience.
How worried were the producers about doing a show with kids? Levitan said they considered doing it as an animated show so adult actors could voice the children. “That’s how much we don’t want to work with kids.”
But, Levitan said, the young “Modern Family” cast members were “professional from day one. They were on it. They were not spoiled. They were hard-working. You could give them a speech this long, and they were all over it.”
(And they have since been joined by kids Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily and Jeremy Maguire as Joe.)
Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”) and Lloyd (“Frasier”) were both sitcom veterans in 2009. They assembled a great team of writers and gifted actors. “Modern Family” was fresh and funny.
“It’s an incredible alchemy of just elements coming together,” Levitan said. “It just so rarely happens that the right characters are created and the right actors come along to play those characters, and then the right writers come along to help bring those characters to life and further deepen those relationships. ... That’s a rare thing.”
“I will always remember meeting this group of people for the first time,” Ferguson said. “It was like an immediate connection. … And I just remember thinking, ‘Even if the show isn’t a success and even if audiences don’t respond to it, I can really stand behind what we’re creating right now because it feels so special and so unique.’”
And yet Levitan was afraid the show “would just not work. That it would fall flat. That for whatever reason … the world wouldn’t think it’s so funny. You just don’t know.”
The show went on to win the Emmy for best comedy in its first season, and in Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5. There’s certainly an argument to be made that “Modern Family” isn’t as good as it once was — it’s not leaving too soon, for sure — but it has been consistently funny and important without being groundbreaking, if only because it better reflects what American families actually look like.
For the most part, cast members sound like they’re ready to move on. Or, at least, resigned to the show ending. But also wistful about what everyone said was among the best experiences in their careers.
“I think everybody is going to go on to do all kinds of great stuff, but this show really does kind of ruin you,” Burrell said. "The people. The quality of the material. The [working] hours, frankly. Everything about it, it’s going to make it hard to follow this job.”
Vergara said she doesn’t expect to ever again “be able to get a group of people like this, to be in a show like this with this success,” Vergara said. “I don’t think anything is going to be as good or better. … I had been working for almost 20 years before I got lucky with ‘Modern Family.”
But, after 11 years as the highly paid star of a hit TV show, she’s not exactly worried. “I might not ever get a job again, but now I have the money. I can sit in my house,” Vergara said.