TELEVISION HOW ‘MODERN FAMILY’ CHANGED TV
The type of large, diverse blended family featured was unusual for a sitcom.
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.”