How contrived that Modern Family would end its season finale with the tried-and-true sitcom trope: a wedding. How monumental, though, that this wedding introduced us, for the first time as husbands, Mitch and Cam.
In what is, at the most, a major moment in television history and, at the very least, a quiet step forward for the marriage equality movement, TV’s most awarded and second most-watched comedy series aired a gay wedding.
With the debate over the legalization of gay marriage making headlines on a daily basis, it’s hard not to read into the fact that 10.2 million people tuned in to toast Mitch and Cam’s “I do’s.” Ever since Modern Family accidentally became television’s go-to political lightning rod, the show’s gay couple and the milestones they’ve passed together on screen have collaterally become beacon’s of progress when it comes to what could broadly be referred to as “acceptance” by the public at large.
Some might argue that what two television characters do on a sitcom should hardly be construed as “important,” but as we’ve long learned, politics and pop culture are often inextricably intertwined. Hollywood and D.C. have made their bed together, and we’re just lying in it. Now, it’s apparently OK for two guys to share that bed, too.
It’s impossible to quantify how many words have been devoted to the progress—or, in some opinion, the lack thereof—when it comes to depicting gay characters on mainstream TV. There are some who reject the idea that Mitch and Cam, two characters who are broadly drawn and arguably perpetuate marginalizing stereotypes of gay-ish character traits, are the unwitting poster gays for the equal-rights movement, at least in some of the more uninitiated segments of society.
But the one thing that’s never been broadly drawn when it comes to Mitch and Cam, and much of this is owed to the warm chemistry between stars Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, is their love. That’s what made Wednesday night’s finale, yes, “important.”
From the time that Modern Family’s brilliant pilot debuted and Cam was thrusting newly adopted Lily into the air while “Circle of Life” from The Lion King played in the background—a genius moment in one of the most perfect pilots from the last 10 years—Mitch and Cam and their gayness were also thrust forward, their every action and even their mere existence significant.
Here, on a mainstream series instantly embraced by critics and viewers alike, was a gay love story that we actually join in the middle. Mitch and Cam were already coupled. Their families already accepted them. There were no plots, as there usually are on network TV when gay characters are involved, about coming to terms with their own sexualities, coming out of the closet, or convincing their families to love them. That was all already established, and presented as normal.
But by the virtue of the show’s name, branding this family “modern,” the series—and, by extension, Mitch and Cam—were seized as political talking points, particularly with equal rights becoming an increasingly hot-button issue. In its most progressive act of all, Modern Family wasn’t pushing that button, just letting Mitch and Cam exist. It was the rest of us, though, that was pushing it for them.
During the 2012 election, endorsing Modern Family became a necessary step on the campaign trail. For Democrats, like the Obamas, the failure to do so would’ve been blasphemous. But for conservatives, who may not have championed some of the rights Mitch and Cam might have wish they had, saying “I like Modern Family”—as Ann Romney did—was a cautious reach across the aisle to the liberal voters. It was the political manifestation of a Seinfeld joke, reassuring voters that they don’t hate the gay community—a veritable “not that there’s anything wrong with that…”
Then came the clamoring for what people wanted Mitch and Cam to represent, more than what they maybe actually did. And that was, neglecting the fact that they were sitcom characters, a “real” gay couple. First came the petition to have them kiss. Then the petition to have them kiss more. And, finally, the petition to have them finally make it legal (you know, once California, where the show takes place, made it so a legal gay marriage was actually possible).
In other words, this was a very special episode of the show, and a landmark episode of television, in general. But what the writers of Modern Family did, then, was not make this feel like one of those Very Special Episodes of TV that we are all so used to and groan about—those cheeseball “TV moments” that are littered with schmaltz and faux poignancy—and that’s a landmark in and of itself.
Not that the writers didn’t slip in some lines and plot points to help telegraph, in case it wasn’t clear already, that this episode means something. When a fire, a failed venue change, and a series of other mishaps keep delaying and stalling the wedding, Cam fears that signs of the apocalypse were hinting that maybe they shouldn’t get married. (Kudos to the writers for naming the family that kicks Mitch and Cam out of the second venue they try to get married in the Lucas family, thus sticking with the apocalyptic theme in delaying the wedding because of the “swarm of Lucases.”)
There was also the comedy of errors stemming from the miscommunication between Mitch and his father, Jay, who he thinks isn’t on board with the idea of the gay wedding but, of course, couldn’t be more proud. Jay, a bit obtusely standing in for the contingent of Americans who happily endorse gay marriage but don’t know the correct or acceptable terms for discussing it, keeps comparing Mitch and Cam’s ceremony to a “regular wedding.” When the fire forces them to search for a second wedding location, he says, foot in mouth, “The fire was an act of God, not that God sent a fireball down to keep you guys from getting married.”
Perhaps that’s the lesson—if there was one besides “love is love,” which it’s always been teaching—that the show’s writers were trying to teach. The fire came before anyone got married, caused by nature. When the two men actually said “I do,” the only thing bordering on a natural disaster was the flood of tears by the guests in attendance.
We’ve seen gay couples get married on TV before. Ross’s ex, Carol, married her girlfriend, Susan, on an episode of Friends, though looking back at the way that whole situation was portrayed can be a bit jarring: the very circumstance of their marriage was a joke played for laughs. Callie and Arizona were married on Grey’s Anatomy in a gorgeous, touching episode, but they’ve always been tertiary characters on the show, and Callie’s later-in-life lesbianism always kind of smelled like a dramatic ploy to keep the character, who was straight when we met her on the show, interesting. And Brothers and Sisters, which wed Kevin and Scotty in another beautiful episode, never had the broad appeal that Modern Family enjoys now.
The day that Modern Family aired Mitch and Cam’s wedding, same-sex marriage was legalized in yet another state and a Gallup poll was released showing that nationwide support for same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high of 55 percent. With all of that going on, do you think it still seems “important,” then, that Mitch and Cam were fictionally married on a TV show?