Inside 'Modern Family's' Billion-Dollar Winning Formula and How Season 4 Might Change Everything

9:00 AM PST 09/19/2012 by Lacey Rose
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Art Streiber

The cast and creators of TV's biggest scripted hit, which recently saw a high-profile salary negotiation and has one of the least conventional writers rooms in the business, tell THR about holding onto viewers' interest and the upcoming plot changes that could cost them their ratings crown.

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Modern Family doesn't operate like most TV shows. Levitan and Lloyd are more co-showrunners than they are collaborators. The duo, who met on Wings and signed a joint deal in 2006 but re-upped separately in 2010 amid creative differences -- a year after Modern hit big -- switch off taking charge of episodes. This season, Levitan plans to oversee the odd-numbered shows while Lloyd tackles the even ones (there are 24 in all), so when Levitan is on the set running production, Lloyd is in the writers room preparing the next week's script. Several insiders liken the peculiar and practical arrangement to a custody agreement governing a TV child.

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"Chris and I are both strong, opinionated people, and we very, very quickly realized it doesn't make sense to sit here and debate each other and waste time," explains Levitan of a decision made early in the show's tenure, noting the "efficiency" of an arrangement that rarely has them interact. "We often come at it from different points of view, so we said, 'Let's just switch off who has final say.' " (They give notes on each other's episodes and attend each other's table reads, though they don't sit together.)

Lloyd says the clash stemmed from his and Levitan's opposing views on why Modern worked so well. "We had different ideas about what the things were that were making the show click," he says. "That can lead to differences of opinion, and it was not going to be practical for us to argue every point of every episode. … [The arrangement that we've worked out] will lead to situations where you go, 'Well, that's not how I would have done that,' but it is a much more practical way than to have both of us sort of swing away on every problem."

The show's cast and writers have become the de facto glue that holds the show together and ensures that viewers can't tell the difference between a "Chris episode" and a "Steve episode" -- though insiders can point to the variations in vibe and style. "I tend to think that Chris writes with his mind and Steve writes with his heart," says O'Shannon, who adds: "With Steve, it's the heart and the real and the emotion and the true, and with Chris, it's the structure and the satisfying experience of watching a story come together and unfold and bringing people together in unexpected ways." For whatever differences there are in style and approach, writers say that at no point have Lloyd or Levitan ever tried to divide the staff. "Their situation works incredibly well for them," adds Walden. "I don't know that I would necessarily look at that model and say you can lay it into every show. It works here because they trust that they're both aiming for that same high bar."

Indeed, castmembers say that what might have been an awkward work environment has turned into a positive. "We definitely shoot two different shows, and it's actually kind of nice for the actors because you never feel like you're in some sort of rut," says Bowen. Adds Burrell, "We've grown to be a kind of family, and we have these two dads." In that scenario, O'Neill serves as the young grandfather who has coached many of them through the show's -- and its stars' -- rise. Those stars not only spend time together outside of the show (many went to Mexico for Vergara's 40th birthday in July) but also, in solidarity, submit themselves as supporting actors in the awards race and, of course, negotiate their deals together. It's telling that O'Neill, the biggest star at the show's inception, was paid as such but joined the others as part of the salary renegotiation. "Ed gives us advice like: 'Stay away from drunk people now that you're recognized' or 'Go into the stall when you're going to the bathroom. No more urinals.' That kind of stuff," says Burrell.

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Spending time with Levitan and Lloyd, it's easy to see that the former, who got his start as a broadcast journalist, is the more extroverted of the two, on and off set. He regularly does press, tweets often to his 60,000-plus followers and typically accepts awards on Modern Family's behalf (memorably receiving a perfectly timed eye roll from his wife, Krista, when he revealed from the stage at the 2011 Emmys that the inspiration for the winning episode was his children walking in on him and his wife "in the act"). He has been a vocal member of the showrunner community, too, voicing his support of gay marriage ("We'll offer [Ann Romney] the role of officiate at Mitch & Cam's wedding … as soon as it's legal," he tweeted in late August) and stating his displeasure with the economics of streaming options early on in the show's run. "Some estimate Hulu IPO could bring in $2Bil. What will the content providers get? Zero. What is Hulu without content? An empty jukebox," he told his followers in August 2010, urging his network to pull the series offline. "I just wanted full credit for that audience," he says now. "And because I was a bit outspoken, I went and had breakfast with Jason [Kilar, Hulu's CEO] and I think it was helpful. And the reporting is changing, too, and Nielsen is trying to get up to date."

Lloyd, son of late sitcom vet David Lloyd, best known for his award-winning work on Cheers, Taxi and Mary Tyler Moore, is more press shy, softer spoken and regularly avoids high-profile events -- even the Emmys. "I'm not an awards-show guy," he says, confirming that, yet again, he doesn't plan to attend this year's show.

On this mid-August afternoon, seven of the show's writers, including Levitan, are gathered around a table in one of the office's two fishbowl conference rooms punching up a script. There's a lightning round of riffing for a scene featuring Cam (Stonestreet) addressing a lesbian mom at daughter Lily's school -- "I'm begging you to give me five minutes with a tweezer," blurts out one writer; "My dad has those shoes," says another -- before the focus turns to a more contentious plot point: Claire Dunphy sending Haley off to college with a supply of condoms.

Levitan acknowledges that some of his writers, many of whom don't have a college-age child like he does, initially were not in favor of the scene. (Levitan is married with three teenage kids; Lloyd is married with two.) In fact, he wasn't entirely convinced he was comfortable with it either, except that it's a situation he's heard many mothers discuss. "The name of our show is Modern Family. We shouldn't shy away from things like that; we should explore them," he says, seated now in his nearby office, which features a framed copy of Blush magazine from Just Shoot Me!, the first hit show he created; a guitar that he's slowly learning to play; and Modern memorabilia.

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Rarely is there a situation written into a Modern episode that didn't happen to someone involved in the show or to others that they know. In fact, the writers say they are encouraged to attend parents' nights and plays at their children's schools to find fodder. "We bring in our fights, our petty jealousies and our anecdotes. Our story-breaking rooms are little therapy sessions," says Zuker. "My [three] kids will do something that annoys me, and they'll see me smile, and then I'll hear, 'Dad, do not put that on the show.' "

What will end up on the show this season might surprise loyal viewers. In an effort to shake things up, the series ended its third season with Gloria (Vergara) revealing she is pregnant with a second child, a plot point that was kept more tightly guarded than any in the show's history. (A fake ending was written and shot to throw off the network and crew.) The decision to add another Pritchett family member was made early in the season as a way to test Jay (O'Neill) and Gloria's relationship with each other and with young Manny (Rico Rodriguez), much as having baby Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) grow up and sending Haley off to college will do for the other two households.

Vergara still is adjusting to the new development. "I thought it was a great idea, but of course I minded because now I have to deal with this thing that is super-uncomfortable," she says in her thick Colombian accent, motioning to the sizable pregnancy bump strapped to her petite frame. "And then you have to deal with a baby on set. My scenes with Ed and Rico are so easy, and we're out of here so quickly, but with a baby it's going to be different." Levitan confesses he was nervous to tell his actress, whose persona is in many ways defined by her pinup proportions. (Gloria's sister and mother will come from Colombia for the baby's christening.)

Meanwhile, Stonestreet's Cam will return to work as a middle school music teacher, which will make for a challenging -- if deeply funny --transition. At home, he and Mitchell (Ferguson) try to come to terms with the fact that they're not the ones having a baby. "Cam is in a very tough, dark, quiet place with it and feeling a lot of the anger," notes Ferguson, who will segue into more of an emotional-caregiver role.

At the Dunphy house, teens Luke (Nolan Gould) and Alex (Ariel Winter) are coming to terms with Haley's departure. "Seeing his big sister go off to college is really sad for him," says Gould. Alex, now the oldest child at home, will spend the early part of the season trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in. "She goes through a lot of different looks: first goth and then vintage," says Winter, who lets slip that her character will get a boyfriend this year, too.

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