ABC was the lucky network to land Modern Family, the most beloved sitcom of the 2010s. Fox were reportedly never asked because the creators, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, didn’t want to work with them; CBS were not ready to make a big commitment to a single-camera series; and NBC already had a few of those and didn’t see a need for another.
Perhaps ABC understood what they were getting, just like Ed O’Neill. He had ten years of sitcom experience behind him after Married… With Children and allegedly predicted, after reading the first script, that Modern Family would be a huge hit.
Divided into three households
When the show began, we met one big Los Angeles family, divided into three households. There was Jay Pritchett (O’Neill) who had made his fortune as the owner of a closet company. He had married a much younger woman, the feisty Colombian immigrant Gloria (Sofía Vergara) who brought along her fifth-grade son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Jay had two adult children, Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). The latter was an attorney in a relationship with Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), occasional clown, later a football coach, and they had recently adopted a baby girl, Lily. Claire was married to a real estate agent, Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), and they had three kids: Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). The three households were close to one another and their lives intersected frequently.
Making it look like a documentary
Modern Family’s background is no surprise. There have been multiple successful family sitcoms over the decades. In this case, Levitan and Lloyd recognized that society had changed and families looked different now; most of the predecessors depicted families that had never gone through a divorce or dealt with a family member coming out. Creating these three families where a lot of water had run under the bridge and making it look like a documentary where the characters frequently confessed to some off-camera interviewer (never seen in eleven years, because that interviewer really was you and me) seemed like a fresh idea.
Levitan and Lloyd were both husbands and fathers packed with experiences and stories about their families and others that became credible, recognizable and hilarious fodder for the show. Modern Family relied on an irresistible mix of quick banter, double meanings, wordplay and slapstick that quickly won over audiences and critics. The latter group eventually found other series to admire, but people seemed to genuinely fall in love with this family in the long run. The cast was one huge reason. This was Vergara’s big breakthrough, but the show looked like a good fit for all the actors, including the kids whom we watched grow up on set over the years, developing their own personalities.
In some ways, Modern Family was a typical network product, never aiming for total authenticity, but it sure remained funny throughout, not least thanks to terrific recurring guest stars like Nathan Lane and Fred Willard. Whenever stories revolved around Cam’s alter ego, Fizbo the clown, there were guaranteed laughs.
Things changed over the years, with more children arriving and (after some initial criticism) more work opportunities for the female characters; in the early episodes, both Claire and Gloria were mostly seen at home. Behind the scenes, the actors took a cue from their colleagues on Friends and fought as one for better pay. Whenever a cast like that comes together, nothing stands in their way.
Modern Family 2009-2020:U.S. Made for TV. 250 episodes. Color. Created by Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd. Cast: Ed O’Neill (Jay Pritchett), Julie Bowen (Claire Dunphy), Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphy), Sofía Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Rico Rodriguez, Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons (11-20), Jeremy Maguire (15-20).
Trivia: Remade as a Greek TV series in 2014-2015.
Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 09-10, 10-11, 11-12, 12-13, 13-14; Directing 10-11, 11-12, 12-13, 13-14; Writing 09-10, 10-11; Supporting Actor (Stonestreet) 09-10, 11-12 (Burrell) 10-11, 13-14; Supporting Actress (Bowen) 10-11, 11-12. Golden Globe: Best Comedy Series 12.
Quote: “I always wanted a daughter… to dress her up in pretty dresses, do her hair, her nails, her makeup. No one knows this, but for the first year of his life, I made up Manny like a girl and told everyone that he was my daughter. But just for a few times, I didn’t want to mess with his head. When he found the pictures, I told him that it was his twin sister who died.” (Vergara)
Last word: “When it came to casting, I had worked with Ty Burrell, who plays Phil Dunphy, on a couple of things, and couldn’t understand how he had been floating around as long as he had without being on a hit show. Appealing, good-looking, so funny – it just doesn’t happen that often. We wanted him, but the network didn’t. But we shot a scene with him and to their credit they saw what he has and said: ‘We were wrong.'” (Lloyd, The Guardian)