The ‘Modern Family’ Series Finale Reminds Us Why It Changed History—and Why People Stopped Caring
An all-time-great comedy navigated uncharted waters over the most tumultuous 11 years in TV history. Its sweet series finale reminded us why it worked, and why it became lame.
By virtue of its name, Modern Family was always going to have an expiration date.
The snarkier and the snootier might scoff that the date came and went years ago. But a historic swath of viewers rode happily with the show into the sunset, which officially came Wednesday night after 11 seasons and 250 episodes. Of course, those lingering fans were tuning in for the comfort of the familiar, by this point remnants of something they fell in love with over a decade ago. In other words, arguably nothing modern at all.
It’s poignant to measure those 11 seasons. Children who were precocious tots when the series began are now full-blown adults. That is an inherently emotional way to mark time.
Harder to quantify, but just as profound, are the ways in which the TV landscape, entertainment industry, and cultural mood the series has aired during has evolved. Modern Family arrived at a tipping point. In fact, with its palatable, matter-of-fact progressiveness, it may very well have been the show that finally tipped the scale.
Celebrated as it was at its launch and for much of its early run, the shine rusted as darker, cynical, raunchier, and more explicit comedies pulled focus on cable. House of Cards, the first original series on Netflix, began airing in the winter of 2013. Nothing about the industry would be the same after that, and that disruption happened at a startling speed.
The Netflix-led streaming service boom started midway through Modern Family’s fifth season, exactly halfway through its run on broadcast network ABC, which was seeing viewership, like all of broadcast, plummet. The revolutionary show was suddenly the stalwart benchmark, the conservative Old Faithful against which these zippy, exciting new ventures measured their hipness against.
But it’s the culture that shifted, too. What was “modern” then aged to something dated. A progressive sitcom became rote and basic. Wholesome soured to lame. A show that was once the epitome of cool became the sitcom equivalent of a “Live, Laugh, Love” sign. As my friend Matthew Jacobs wrote in The Huffington Post, Modern Family became the “show that stayed the same while the rest of TV changed” around it.
The saving grace of Wednesday night’s hour-long series finale is that, while it will hardly rank among the greatest episodes the show has produced, it is an occasion to memorialize that very greatness.
Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) are living in an RV in their driveway, their house overrun by their grown children, son-in-law, and two grandkids. Desperate for peace, they rule that one of three adult kids has to move out. You don’t need to be a sitcom savant to figure out that, by the end of the hour, all three children will have fallen into circumstances that will have them packing their bags, leaving Claire and Phil with an empty nest.
Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) are living in a new house with their new adopted son and loving it, until their infant bliss is interrupted by a job offer in Missouri. Now they’re leaving, too. Gloria (Sofia Vergara) is also staring down the barrel of loneliness. Her son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is going away for a year. Is Jay (Ed O’Neill) equipped to pick up the emotional slack?
The episode was such a classic sitcom finale it almost felt as if you had seen it before. There were mix-ups, dramatic coincidences, bait-and-switches, miscommunications, and two big musical set pieces. Four different scenes mined group hugs for comedy and tears.
Don’t get me wrong, there were moments when I was touched. Bless them both, Ty Burrell and Sofia Vergara had line readings that made me laugh harder than I had all day—and it was much needed. Of course, those two have reliably been the show’s MVPs. Even when the writing failed them, they delivered ace comedy.
But for a show that launched with what may still be the best sitcom pilot of the last 15 years, that the finale proved so staid and predictable is a bit dejecting.
That first season of Modern Family made tweaks to tropes of family dynamics that had been long embedded in the DNA of family sitcoms. In doing so, it gave the genre a new, fresh identity.
In finally validating how the country and its family units were changing in non-traditional ways, it managed to recognize the overdue reality that no two families are the same without knocking down the support beam that holds up the entire structure of the family-sitcom genre: the idea that the characters you’re watching are stand-ins for all of us.
When you look at TV now and the voices that have risen to the forefront of the industry, they’re no longer attempting to speak for or even appeal to everyone. It’s stories of specific, personal experiences, told in ways that only those creators can.
There’s still a place and certainly a desire for what Modern Family does: the solace of those values, that story structure, that “kids! can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em” tried-and-true humor. Families will never cease being frustrating and, as such, epically funny. With the world as it is, our hearts are breaking every day. They need mending. Frozen in fear, they need the particular warmth of shows like this to keep beating.
They’ll never go away, no matter how much the landscape changes. The kind of show they are and how they are watched, of course, will be different. Schitt’s Creek, which began quietly airing midway through Modern Family’s run before erupting with popularity as they both wrapped up, is proof of that. It’s an incredibly odd coincidence that Schitt’s Creek’s final episode aired Tuesday and then, just one night later, Modern Family also said goodbye.
In contrast to Schitt’s Creek, which aired a series finale emblematic of how emotionally rich the show had grown, Modern Family’s was a well-intentioned and pleasant-enough indictment of how superficial it had become.
This is a show that statistically is the best comedy in the history of television. (At one point it at least deserved to be in that conversation; as the series went on, that ship sailed away with motorspeed.) It is the only show, along with Frasier, to win five Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Series, and both won those trophies consecutively. You could argue that many wins in a row was excessive, but it’s undeniable that, at that stretch of time from 2010-14, Modern Family was, week after week, delivering brilliant television.
It’s hard to remember just how strong a hold the show had on the zeitgeist, too.
It was groundbreaking for Mitch and Cam to be a settled gay couple with equal billing to the rest of the characters of the series. The platform was so singular and powerful that the online pop-culture thinkpiece engine’s early days were powered in part by passionate discourse about what stereotypes they fell into and whether their relationship—normal and settled according to heteronormative standards—was responsible.
When fans noticed that the couple was shier with PDA than the show’s straight couples, they launched a petition that made national news. It worked. They smooched.
When Prop 8 was overturned in California, fans couldn’t see Mitch and Cam get engaged soon enough. One year before marriage equality passed in the Supreme Court, ABC aired their wedding. And there’s no discounting the impact of 11 years exploring the relationship between Jay and his adult gay son, working out mistakes made and changing opinions from a place of love.
The show even became a prop for presidential candidates. In the 2012 election, endorsing Modern Family was a must. For Obama, duh. For Republicans like Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, it was an opportunity to offer the emptiest gesture. Coming out as liking Modern Family was the political manifestation of that Seinfeld joke, reassuring gay voters that they don’t hate them—a veritable “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
At that point, Modern Family was a hit, beloved, Emmy-winning series and a comedic bridge across the aisle. It’s not a surprise that the critical reception changed.
Of course there was a backlash. That’s what happens when a show runs for 11 years. It happened to The Big Bang Theory. It happened to The Office. It happened to Seinfeld and Friends and Will & Grace and Roseanne. Who knows if it will ever happen again, if a show will even last long enough for the attitude to shift like that. That Modern Family made it this far is historic.
Everything has changed. And that’s fine. If Modern Family knows one thing, it’s the power of the “Circle of Life.”