“It’s very important in this town that you understand who you are and what you want to be,” Eric Stonestreet told me 11 years ago. “And I only wanted to be a character actor.”
Others are welcome to reflect on the legacy of Modern Family, how it changed attitudes, changed America, yada yada. To me, the most amazing thing this mockumentary sitcom did over 11 seasons on ABC was take a 38-year-old actor, resigned to being “that guy” in dozens of TV shows and indie films, and turn him into a damned comedy superstar. Stonestreet, who actually did dress up as Fizbo the Clown and put on shows for kids in his Kansas City neighborhood, leaves Modern Family with two Emmys and so much cash that he could easily afford an ownership stake in his beloved hometown Royals.
Hit shows used to work this kind of magic all the time. Now it seems they never do. The Good Place was a wonderful show that nobody watched. Fleabag, Mrs. Maisel, Schitt’s Creek — are all on cable or streaming, which means short seasons and few cultural ripples beyond the well-informed and good-looking Primetimer crowd.
Modern Family was big from the get-go. At ABC’s upfront presentation at Lincoln Center in 2009, the head of entertainment decided to screen the entire pilot for a room of 1,000 advertisers itching to get to the afterparty. That was a gutsy call, but it paid off. Modern Family went into the season with tremendous buzz and went on to dominate Wednesday nights for years, although the night of the week now matters less than which streamer the reruns are on.
Hulu doesn’t release ratings, but I feel confident saying that few shows right now are providing more comfort to more families than anything else we’re hunkering down with. I know it’s been said that Modern Family “normalized” gay relationships and same-sex marriage, but really, that work was already done across most of America before it came along. Modern Family was a top-three show in both Republican and Democratic homes, and both nominees for president in 2012 — one of them a conservative Mormon — said it was their favorite show to watch with the whole family.
(By the way, you could do that now with your cooped-up kin. At two episodes a night, you’d have enough Modern Family to last until mid-August. By then, either the stay-at-home orders will be lifted or Friends will be back on streaming.)
Tonight’s Modern Family sendoff is, appropriately, very big. The one-hour series finale is preceded by a highly entertaining hour special, A Modern Farewell. Watching that retrospective, I was reminded of what it was that Modern Family actually normalized — the sprawling web of relationships that many, many Americans now call family.
Basically the history of the sitcom is four decades of shows about nuclear families followed by two decades of shows about young single people. Modern Family served as a reality check that most people today are not well-off singletons, that life has eased us into a much looser definition of family than the old Ozzie-and-Harriet model — and that most of us prefer the modern family anyway.
Conceptually, it’s now obvious that Modern Family was a reboot of Everybody Loves Raymond — three dysfunctional yet close-knit families related by marriage — without the studio audience and the 1950s values. (Also, unlike Raymond, the kids on Modern Family got lines to say and, as they aged before our eyes, they assumed larger roles on the show ... for better or worse.)
The show’s creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have often told the origin story. They were in their office working on a sitcom to pitch to NBC when they realized the stories they told each other about their wacky families during breaks were more entertaining than what they were putting down in the writers room.
The writers on Raymond would often go home and quarrel with their wives because it gave them great material for the show. Funny, but in the retrospective airing tonight, one of the Modern Family writers, Abraham Higginbotham, recalls “pitching the episode where Cam (Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) came out at the same time in the same outfit. My partner and I have done that thousands of times.” Same thing, only different. This fantastic scene involving Mitch and Cam happened in real life, too:
Not everything felt so true-to-life. As a female comedy writer put it early on, “If Modern Family is so ‘modern’ then why don’t any of the women have jobs?” (Because most of the show’s writers were men and doing so well that their wives didn’t have to work?) Ultimately Julie Bowen’s Claire was allowed to enter the workforce. And if we’re being honest, the older man-younger wife pairing (Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara’s characters) is not really that modern, not when compared with the older woman-younger hubby hookup.
But these are small quarrels with a show that did something almost no TV show has done — take an ambitious, network-sized concept and turn it into an eternal favorite with great writing and pitch-perfect casting. (We haven’t even touched on the brilliance of Ty Burrell as the endlessly, haplessly hilarious Phil.) In the end, Modern Family was done in not by the ratings but by the staggering cost of continuing to produce a show where everyone’s getting paid movie-star salaries, including a kid from Kansas City who never imagined someone would one day pay him to dress up like a clown.
ABC airs a one-hour retrospective special A Modern Farewell tonight at 8:00 PM ET, followed by the two-part Modern Family series finale at 9:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.