“Modern Family” ran for 11 seasons. That’s 250 episodes and a thousand pratfalls. The show never changed, but the television landscape surrounding it certainly did.
When it premiered in 2009, “Modern Family” was progressive and clever. Family sitcoms, once TV comedy’s primary sustenance, had been replaced by shows about friend groups and the workplace, yet here came one that conferred purpose via the adjective in its title. The Los Angeles clan was large, blended, fairly wealthy and ostensibly diverse, from the macho patriarch (Ed O’Neill) adapting to the ways of his younger Latina wife (Sofia Vergara) and erudite stepson (Rico Rodriguez) to the well-adjusted gay couple (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who’d adopted a stoic Vietnamese daughter.
As the 2010s dawned, “Modern Family” became the rare series to generate colossal ratings and critical applause. Meanwhile, the viewership for most critical favorites — “30 Rock,” “Enlightened,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Louie” — ranged from lukewarm to downright anemic. The show’s reward was five consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, a record it shares with “Frasier.” (Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, the co-creators, also wrote for “Frasier” and a handful of other classics, including “The Golden Girls” and “Just Shoot Me!”)
By some standards, a show like this — one that got flagship treatment from ABC — goaded Heartland viewers into imagining domesticity with a less-orthodox makeup. In no time, it found fans across political party lines, namely the Obamas and the Romneys. The Pritchett-Dunphy tribe were pretty good surrogates for a country on the cusp of a major cultural upgrade. Today, however, “Modern Family” will go out as an artifact that straddles two starkly different versions of America.
In September 2009, Barack Obama was eight months into his first term as president. Marriage equality would be legalized in 2015, and almost every sector of public life would start to reckon with its treatment of women and minorities. But nothing gold can stay, especially not when something stays for more than a decade. As technological disruption and Donald Trump’s ascendancy changed the national ethos, “Modern Family” couldn’t keep up.
Taking a final bow on Wednesday, the show has faded so far from the zeitgeist that it’s hard to believe it’s still on the air. The format remained contemporary largely because there was no laugh track, and the punchlines still (sometimes) land, but what used to seem forward-thinking now feels passé.
Part of that is a testament to how much television has matured with the rise of premium cable’s prestige bait and the advent of streaming networks, the latter contributing to broadcast programming’s dwindling audience. “Modern Family” was mockumentary in style, like “The Office” before it and “American Vandal” after it, and the tone offered a winsome blend of wry banter, wacky mishaps and earnest pathos. It wasn’t as acerbic as “Roseanne” or as saccharine as “The Brady Bunch.” But half-hour sitcoms went in a different direction altogether as the 2010s unfurled, and “Modern Family” looked nothing like the titles that eventually redefined TV comedy — shows like “Girls,” “Atlanta,” “Russian Doll,” “Fleabag” or even NBC darling “The Good Place.”
Judged from the comparatively enlightened lens of 2020, it also doesn’t look so brazen in its depiction of queerness or unconventional family structures. The gay couple, uptight Mitch (Ferguson) and flamboyant Cam (Stonestreet), rarely displayed physical affection. The women were introduced as stay-at-home moms slotted into clichéd gender roles, which the show waited until Season 5 to rectify, giving the neurotic Claire (Julie Bowen) a job at her father’s successful closet-building company. (She rose to CEO in Season 7.)
By the time the older kids had graduated high school, the show struggled to position them within the real world and concoct plots that involved anything resembling substanti character development. (Props to Sarah Hyland, who portrayed the one-note ditz Haley and remained an under-appreciated comedic powerhouse.) Furthermore, the series somehow never seemed to realize how much it trafficked in humor that could be described as casually incest-y. At one point, I was determined to go back and catalog every incest-adjacent joke or subplot, but it was too daunting an undertaking for any sane human.)
I watched the series religiously, sometimes rolling my eyes as often as I chuckled. Gender hiccups aside, the first four seasons are as funny as anything else that’s premiered in the last 20 years (except “Veep”; nothing is as funny as “Veep”). Today, those episodes play like relics of the broadcast-sitcom era. For that reason, the series’ relative quaintness can be comforting. My favorite character, Phil (MVP Ty Burrell), is storybook-worthy: a straight man with reliable integrity, boundless dedication to his family, goofy charm and good looks.
As the storylines became redundant and the interpersonal dynamics slightly retrograde, “Modern Family” turned into a casualty of an evolving Hollywood. I’m tempted to extend some slack; after all, the writers couldn’t have anticipated how antiquated it would feel by 2016. But a show’s responsibility is to grow with the times and to at least attempt to achieve something novel. This one gave up on that. At least we had some quality laughs along the way.
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