Full series review
“Family is family; whether it’s the one you start out with,
the one you end up with, or the family you gain along the way.”
The number of American sitcoms that have centered around the concept of family is pretty much innumerable. Be it a traditional nuclear family, a found family; or even a group of friends who become family over time; a supportive, loving family unit is often at the core of comedy from the U.S. Modern Family attempted to build a sitcom around all of those family units.
Created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not that one), Modern Family debuted in 2009 and ran for 11 seasons until 2020. It follows the Pritchett-Dunphy clan; centred around patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed Helms) and his two children Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Jay is divorced and has re-married a woman 25 years his senior, Gloria (Sofia Vergara); who brings with her a son, Manny (Rico Rodriquez) from a previous relationship of her own. Claire is married to Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and they have three children; Hayley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Mitchell is in a long-term relationship with partner Cam (Eric Stonestreet), and the show begins with them surprising the rest of the family when they return from Vietnam with an adopted daughter, Lily (originally played by Ella and Jaden Hiller, but most famously played by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons). The large choral cast was a smart move from Levitan and Lloyd; the series became known over the years for dealing with a wide array of issues from a variety of different angles, and the diversity of a multi-racial central cast was key in a lot of that, alongside dealing with LGBTQ+ issues using Mitchell and Cam’s relationship. While it’s notable that there are some groups missing from that focus in the central cast, namely Afro-Carribean representation; there are more minor black recurring characters, though it certainly would not have hurt the show’s reputation to have had that representation as part of the central cast, even if they had been introduced later in the series.
The true success of Modern Family is that none of the characters can be immediately earmarked as The Annoying One. At various points throughout the series, each character finds themselves in a marked moment of conflict; be it within their immediate personal relationship, or their stand-out family unit, or with the family as a whole (except Phil, who is a sweet, beautiful angel who must be protected at all costs); but never is one character annoying for the audience. This is especially impressive given that the show starts with 5 child characters, and expands to 6 in season 4 – it’s not secret that on-screen children can often be irritating due to being written by adults and seeming off in their characterisation, but it’s a credit to the show’s writing team and to the actors they cast that all of the children of Modern Family are engaging, entertaining and naturalistic in their attitudes and behaviours. The Dunphy children in particular are an effective family unit, and the portrayal of Hayley and Alex being at consistent loggerheads (with the exception of when they unite to torment the younger Luke) is certainly in keeping of the anecdotal experiences I’m familiar with from friends who grew up in similar family dynamics. With a lesser team, the reliance of quite rigid archetypal personifications doesn’t detract from their characters in any way; and the dynamic between the pretty, popular Hayley and the nerdy, more reclusive Alex is an effective driver in many storylines in earlier seasons. Similarly, while Manny’s “old before his time” characterisation could easily have come off as annoying or overly stylised, when contrasted against Jay’s older patriarch trying to hold onto his youth (especially for the benefit of his younger wife); it works very effectively.
The development of the children’s characters as the show goes on, and as the actors who play them change, is also of note. Ariel Winter and Nolan Gould went through some stark physical changes as they grew up, and the gradual adjustment of their characters to reflect that was very well carried out. Manny also has a naturalistic progression from a tiny Berraco into an artistic type as an older teen/young adult, and the transformation is particularly effective given the younger Manny’s artistic, almost hipster personality. Arguably, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons has the most fascinating progression, as the fun-loving young Lily grows into a metalhead teen that even her own parents are frightened of at times; and Anderson-Emmons deadpan delivery is perfect for the character. The biggest shame of this show is that Lily is missing in action for some of the later seasons, as the juxtaposition between her and the stylish Mitchell and Cam is a highlight of the show’s last few seasons.
The show isn’t held up entirely by the kids, of course; the adults are excellently written and portrayed as well. Jay’s development and growth as the member of an older generation who must adjust to a young family, a foreign wife, and a changing dynamic in the workplace is a wonderful journey throughout the show’s run. Likewise, Claire’s transition from stay-at-home mother to working mother is an engaging storyline, and an effective way of shifting the personal dynamics within the Dunphy household to create some fun stories to tell. Both of these examples lead to a larger point; Modern Family was particularly effective at taking expected sitcom storylines and gently tweaking them to make them more relevant and reflective of the modern world. Jay’s transformation into a kinder, more attentive father and boss isn’t routinely mocked by the other men around him; in fact, it is Phil, Mitchell and Cam who often help to convince him that such changes are actually necessary, and that they will benefit his family and his employees. All of the central cast go through arcing discoveries about themselves across the whole series, especially the adults and some more prominent than others; and this dedication to character growth is what really keeps the show fresh across its eleven season run.
All of this is not to say that Modern Family is the perfect TV show. As with all shows that run for this length of time, Modern Family does suffer from the curse of the American sitcom, in that the central characters do find themselves devolving into caricatures of themselves in later seasons. It’s not as pronounced as it is with some other long-running shows (such as Friends or How I Met Your Mother), and the constant and consistent character development does help them avoid it at times in those later seasons; but it’s also notable that certain character qualities, such as Claire’s high-sprung control issues or Hayley’s ditzy personality, do sometimes dominate the more subtle characteristics in certain episodes.
One of the show’s other strengths is the engagement of the mockumentary format, made popular by the likes of The Office and Parks And Recreation. While it’s never explained why this family is being followed by a documentary crew (though apparently it was originally meant to be project by a never-seen foreign exchange student), the use of the cut-away interviews to add character context is incredibly effective; surprisingly so for a show that is primarily about familial relationships. The writers and cast alike did a great job of using these moments to portray another layer of character to each associated scenario, adding extra context and background to on-going stories, and building on or applying further subtext to the wider story. It’s the effectiveness of this style that holds Modern Family above a lot of similarly-themed sitcoms in terms of narrative structure, and it undoubtedly is what led to it being parodied by Marvel’s WandaVision earlier this year (in what I am certain will not be a one-off instance of homage from other shows).
I regret not getting on board with Modern Family when it was first airing. I had a previously watched a few episodes here and there and enjoyed them, but trying to jump in part way through wasn’t really feasible, given the amount of time and care that had already been spent on that character development. Thankfully, the show is currently available on Netflix in Canada (and possibly in other regions too), and if you haven’t checked it out yet, I recommend you give it a go. There are much, much worse ways to spend a half an hour chunk of your free time; I can confidently say that I laughed out loud at least once per episode – a feat that is not easy for a show that runs for over a decade.