TELE­VI­SION HOW ‘MOD­ERN FAM­ILY’ CHANGED TV

The type of large, di­verse blended fam­ily fea­tured was un­usual for a sit­com.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING - By Emily Yahr

When ABC an­nounced this week that “Mod­ern Fam­ily” had been re­newed for its 11th and fi­nal sea­son, and will wrap up for good in 2020, the re­ac­tion was fairly muted. Sure, it’s al­ways note­wor­thy when a long-run­ning show pre­pares to bid farewell, and some fans were sad to hear the news — how­ever, for most reg­u­lar view­ers, it just means the DVR gets slightly less crowded.

Even if the col­lec­tive re­ac­tion is a shrug, it’s worth look­ing back at the com­edy’s some­what ground­break­ing be­gin­nings to re­mem­ber it helped change TV.

The show launched when net­work come­dies were con­sid­ered a dy­ing breed. While CBS had luck with series such as “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang The­ory” and “How I Met Your Mother,” other broad­cast chan­nels had mostly given up. Then along came “Mod­ern Fam­ily.” ABC ex­ec­u­tives had such high hopes that, in a rare move, they screened the en­tire pilot for ad­ver­tis­ers at the New York up­front pre­sen­ta­tions in May 2009, four months be­fore the ac­tual pre­miere. Ad­ver­tis­ers loved it — as did the many TV crit­ics and re­porters in the au­di­ence.

Most of the cast (be­sides Ed O’Neill of “Mar­ried … with Chil­dren” fame) were com­plete un­knowns. O’Neill starred as a the wealthy fam­ily pa­tri­arch, Jay, mar­ried to his sec­ond wife, Glo­ria (Sofia Vergara), a much younger Colom­bian woman who had a pre­teen son. His daugh­ter, Claire ( Julie Bowen), was mar­ried to the goof­ball Phil (Ty Bur­rell), and they had three kids. His son, Mitchell ( Jesse Tyler Fer­gu­son), lived with his part­ner, Cameron (Eric Ston­estreet); in the series pre­miere, they adopted a baby girl from Viet­nam.

That type of large, di­verse blended fam­ily was un­usual for a sit­com, which typ­i­cally had a nu­clear fam­ily struc­ture, if not a slight vari­a­tion. But given the solid rat­ings for “Mod­ern Fam­ily,” which av­er­aged nearly 10 mil­lion view­ers an episode in its first sea­son, it sig­naled that au­di­ences craved some­thing new.

“It had sort of ev­ery­thing: the gay cou­ple with a child, the nu­clear fam­ily, the step­fam­ily, all in one,” said Tim Brooks, a for­mer net­work ex­ec­u­tive and TV his­to­rian. “So with that premise, it at­tracted at­ten­tion and an au­di­ence … and in my ex­pe­ri­ence, (a TV series) has to go be­yond be­ing a ‘mes­sage’ show. It has to have char­ac­ters you care about and re­la­tion­ships you care about.”

The show quickly be­came a hit, and racked up tons of awards; its Emmy Award dom­i­na­tion be­came a run­ning joke as it tri­umphed in the best com­edy cat­e­gory from 2010 through 2014, ty­ing “Frasier” for five con­sec­u­tive wins. In 2011, thenPres­i­dent Barack Obama de­clared it was his fam­ily’s fa­vorite show.

The most in­flu­en­tial as­pect of the series, how­ever, was Mitch and Cam’s re­la­tion­ship; the show fea­tured their wedding episode the year af­ter the Supreme Court struck down Cal­i­for­nia’s Propo­si­tion 8, the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that banned same-sex mar­riage. In 2015, the At­lantic’s Spencer Korn­haber wrote about the im­pact a cou­ple like Mitch and Cam had on prime-time au­di­ences, even though view­ers had seen gay TV char­ac­ters for years, from “All in the Fam­ily” to “Will & Grace” to “Glee.”

“Cam and Mitch have been about as tame as any­one could ask — in con­trast to the straight cou­ples they hang out with, they rarely touch, never talk about sex and make a big deal over kiss­ing in pub­lic,” he wrote. “But the fact re­mains that each pop­u­lar de­pic­tion of gay life helped en­cour­age net­works to take chances on oth­ers, and to­day there’s un­prece­dented di­ver­sity in rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sex­u­al­ity on tele­vi­sion, as shown in pro­grams like ‘Em­pire’ and ‘Orange Is the New Black.’”

Of course, as the years went on, the show lost its lus­ter; its Emmy nom­i­na­tions slowed down and then stopped com­pletely. But as the show gets ready to sign off in a year, there are plenty of view­ers who will truly miss it, as it came to re­sem­ble com­fort food.

“I think that the au­di­ence will re­ally re­mem­ber it as a show that re­ally tried to pro­vide in­ter­est­ing story lines about the lives of just or­di­nary peo­ple,” said Cather­ine Luther, a pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity of Ten­nessee’s School of Jour­nal­ism & Elec­tronic Me­dia. “That’s what was so nice.”

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