The mockumentary format seemed the perfect way to create a fresh approach for comedy set in the workplace, with English and US versions of The Office proving huge successes and propelling several of their respective cast members to stardom. Whether it would work for a family sitcom would seem to have been more doubtful, but in Modern Family, 20th Century Fox struck gold – for 11 seasons.
Set in the sunny neighbourhoods of Los Angeles, California, Modern Family arrived in 2009 and focussed on the extended family of closet manufacturer Jay Pritchett. Ed O’Neill, of Married with Children fame, was the only established comedy star in the show’s wide cast, but Modern Family’s early success quickly turned its actors into stars, and rich ones at that.
Pritchett’s own household contained his wife of six months (when the first episode was aired), fiery Colombian Gloria Delgado and her son Manny. Gloria was significantly younger than Jay, whose own offspring from his first marriage were older than his new bride.
Jay’s son and daughter provided the other two households. Claire had married realtor Phil Dunphy, who was always desperate to win approval from his non-demonstrative father-in-law. There were three Dunphy children, Hayley, Alex and Luke, with Alex having more brain power than her two siblings combined.
Jay’s son Mitchell was in a same sex relationship with the
flamboyant Cameron Tucker, and the pair adopted a Vietnamese baby, Lily, in the
Critics salivated over the early seasons of Modern Family and the awards stacked up for the show and its stars, as did the increasing salaries. Sofia Vergara’s feisty performance as Gloria elevated her to being the best paid actress on television and by the final series, one of the best paid actresses in the world.
Ty Burrell earned eight successive Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy nominations, and few would argue that the definition of ‘supporting actor’ was stretched somewhat. It was not uncommon for Burrell to steal the show, and without his amiable character the series would almost certainly have faltered with too many confrontational characters.
There’s little doubt that Modern Family broke many taboos and charted many new waters for such a successful primetime sitcom. Cam and Mitch were perhaps a little stereotypical, certainly so for Cam, but one of the key successes of the show was normalising their relationship in a way previous sitcoms had been either unable or unwilling to do. Indeed, the moment same sex marriage laws were approved, the writers built most of series five around the pair’s season-opening proposal through to the season-ending wedding.
There were of course doubters. Some felt the depiction of women was poor, with Clare initially a stay at home mother, and Gloria’s obvious sex appeal used to its fullest as she too remained at home. But one of the huge positives of Modern Family was their moving with the times. Gloria developed a successful home-run hot sauce business while Clare moved into the closet business, eventually taking over the reins of her father’s company when Jay retired.
The comedy is lightning fast – at times it’s simply well observed, at others it’s a little slapstick, but there are also plenty of moments of genuine emotion. The death of Phil’s mother is dealt with in a charming road trip episode mirrored by a stroll down memory lane for Jay as he reflects on his first marriage on a family trip to Disneyland, while a complete meltdown by the intellectually superior Alex is dealt with in a powerful yet sympathetic manner.
Guest stars come and go and it’s testament to the show that such high calibre names as Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and sitcom royalty Kelsey Grammar and Shelley Long were brought in for a range of cameo appearances. And in later years the writers weren’t afraid for the younger members of the cast to be absent from entire episodes without feeling the need for explanation, rather than fall into the trap of trying to maintain childhood charm into late-teen characters.
Whether Modern Family is remembered as an American classic or a show that faltered as it tried to embrace changes in the politically correct times that we live in will probably only become clear once it has been gone from our screens for some time. One suspects it will be remembered very fondly. At its peak it was warm, engaging and laugh out loud funny and Fox will struggle to discover the next 11-season show that will connect with the public in the same manner.
About the reviewer: Brian Slade
Born and raised in Dorset, Brian Slade turned his back on a twenty-five year career in IT in order to satisfy his writing passions. After success with magazine articles and smaller biographical pieces, he published his first full-length work, `Simon Cadell: The Authorised Biography'.
Brian is a devoted fan of
the comedy stars of yesteryear, citing Eric Morecambe, Ken Dodd, Harpo Marx and
Dudley Moore amongst his personal favourites. He was drawn to the story of
Simon Cadell through not only `Hi-de-hi!' but also `Life Without George',
a programme he identified with having grown up in the Thatcher era.
Published on November 27th, 2019. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.