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Modern Family's End is a Reminder of How Far We've Come

Eleven year later, the ABC sitcom feels far less revolutionary.
  • The Modern Family cast, circa 2009 (ABC)
    The Modern Family cast, circa 2009 (ABC)

    The title of Modern Family was never meant to be ironic or an overstatement. Since its premiere in 2009, the ABC comedy has focused on the extended Pritchett family: patriarch Jay (Ed O'Neill), his children Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and their respective spouses and kids. Jay is married to the younger Colombian Gloria (Sofia Vergara), while Claire is married to well-meaning doofus Phil (Ty Burrell), and Mitchell and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) have an adopted daughter Lily. "Modern Family" referred to the Pritchett clan as a reflection of modern America: a blended family with some ethnic flavor and a big ol' gay relationship front and center. In 2009, this represented ABC taking a bold step forward, and that boldness paid off. Modern Family was a hit right out of the gate, and it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, as well as awards for supporting actor (Stonestreet) and writing for its first season. The show would go on to win Outstanding Comedy Series for its first five seasons.

    Yet as the veteran ABC series ends its eleven year run Wednesday night, it's difficult to look back at Modern Family without seeing it as an artifact of a past era, whose claims of modernity seem positively quaint by today's standards. That's not to say the show is objectionable, or that it hasn't aged well, it's just that it's almost laughable to look at the show and remember that it was once one of network TV's more forward-looking shows.

    Part of that disconnect owes the fact that it was one of network TV's biggest shows. Modern Family kicked off a decade that, halfway through, would usher in the streaming revolution. Cable had already encroached upon the broadcast TV landscape, but streaming was about to obliterate what was left of the networks' hold on the American public's imagination. And with streaming came more and more shows that broadened the definition of what it meant to be "modern" in television comedy, from Netflix's Orange Is the New Black and One Day at a Time, to Amazon's Transparent and beyond. Soon enough, and with due respect to Vergara and Rico Rodriguez who played Gloria's son Manny, Modern Family began to look like just another mostly-white sitcom on network TV.

    The one aspect that Modern Family touted when it came to its diversity was the prominence of a gay couple among its central characters. In the 2009-10 TV season in which Modern Family debuted, LGBTQ characters represented only 3% of all the series regular roles on broadcast television. Last year's report has that number up to 10%, still relatively small but 3-fold increase nonetheless. Back then, there were only 25 LGBTQ characters on scripted cable series; now there are 121 on cable and an additional 109 on Netflix/Amazon/Hulu. That's not to discount the role that Modern Family played in getting from point A to point B, but point A looks mighty distant in the rearview. And even during its heyday, Modern Family was constantly getting called out for its depiction of Mitch and Cam's sexless, nearly loveless relationship and later marriage (their wedding didn't take place until the Season 5 finale). in time, all this modernity began to feel decidedly retrograde.

    It makes all the sense that Modern Family would suffer this fate. It premiered less than a year after Barack Obama was elected President, which ushered in a cultural sea change. Halfway through the show's run, the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision recognized legal gay marriage throughout the United States. Suddenly, touting a gay marriage on your show didn't seem forward thinking as much as it felt like the writers trying not to fall behind the times. What does Modern Family even mean in the Trump era? Who knows, really. Viewership has gone down and even the once gaga Emmys have left Modern Family behind.

    It's not like Modern Family is ending its run in disgrace. Eleven years on the air, five Outstanding Comedy Emmys, paving the way for Sofia Vergara and Joe Mangianello to get married: this is a show with a definite legacy. It's just not quite the legacy many may have expected. The world spun too quickly for it. "Modern" just ain't what it used to be.

    Modern Family airs its series finale this Wednesday April 8 at 9:00 PM ET on ABC

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Modern Family, ABC, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Julie Bowen, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell, LGBTQ, Series Finales