Critic's Notebook: Despite Flaws, 'Modern Family' Leaves a Legacy to Love

From its all-time great pilot to its Emmy wins to its role in establishing ABC's family-comedy forte, 'Modern Family' had a 250-episode run that was inconsistent but both hilarious and important.
Jill Greenberg/ABC

The first of this week's departing iconic comedies was the ultimate underdog. Schitt's Creek launched on a negligible cable channel to limited acclaim, only to gradually become an audience favorite, a critical darling and even an awards contender. Anybody telling you that they saw it coming is a liar.

That is not the narrative behind Modern Family.

Thanks to the pedigree of creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd and a cast peppered with established names and up-and-coming talent, Modern Family was one of the most buzzed-about pilots of the 2009 development season; at the network's upfront presentation, ABC took the rare step of closing its gala by airing the entire first episode for advertisers.

ABC knew exactly what it had in Modern Family. The comedy premiered as an out-of-the-box hit, buoyed by rave reviews, and each of its first five seasons won the Emmy for outstanding comedy series. Whatever the opposite of an under-the-radar success is, that's what Modern Family was.

Perhaps that's why Schitt's Creek is departing at what still feels like the crest of its adulation and media attention and Modern Family will wrap up its 250-episode run accompanied by at least some "That show's still on?" derision. If Modern Family had concluded after only three or four seasons and had aired on FX or HBO, we would have talked about it as an all-time great, instead of sneering at it as a poster child for Emmy-voting complacency, for which the show itself should hardly be blamed.

What we didn't sufficiently appreciate in those early years, as Modern Family made its multitiered stories look absurdly effortless, was how delicate the show was. The reason TV isn't deluged with farce is that farce is crazily difficult — and the sort of internally arced episodic farce that Modern Family excelled at, where the details scattered throughout each 20 minutes would magically coalesce in something raucous or resonant in the last two minutes, isn't a thing to take for granted.

Anybody who has stuck with the show through the past five or six seasons has learned to relish the episode or two per season that recaptured the artistic unity that came so frequently in those earlier years. Because most of the episodes have instead been quite sweaty in their visible effort, too often wasting the remarkable ensemble or getting perplexingly distracted by dogs or mugging new kids.

But I don't want this to be a, "Farewell to Modern Family, even if it hasn't been great for years," piece. I want to honor the show for the things it did well and the ways it was important. (Oh and, if such things matter to you, the final season has been pretty good. Not "season one to three" good, but much of the consistency the show squandered has been back in this last run of 18 episodes.)

First, one must start with that pilot, written by Levitan and Lloyd and directed with utter confidence by Jason Winer, who laid down so much of the confident rhythm of those early seasons. When the show premiered, critics were frustrated by whether or not we were supposed to keep quiet about the show's "twist" — that the disparate story strands actually related to characters who were, well, related — even though the show's promotion wasn't keeping it a secret. Leaving that aside, to go back and watch the pilot now is to be astounded at the efficiency with which most of the main characters, all still with the show 11 years later, were introduced and given voices and identifiable personality traits in less than a half-hour. You can't do it much better than this, and Modern Family isn't one of those shows that poured everything into the pilot and then was out of moves immediately.

It helped — and this is probably the second most important thing the show had going for it — that the ensemble was immediately locked in. Everything builds around Ed O'Neill, who was also the show's biggest name, and although he somehow never won an Emmy in those years that the Emmy voters seemed like they were attempting an even distribution, if you go and watch the best of those early episodes, he's the one making most of the heart feel earned.

Before the writers became overly enamored with reducing her character to three things — malapropisms, boobs and dark hints of her Colombian past — Sofía Vergara was probably my second favorite of the cast, aggressively landing laughs and developing real chemistry with O'Neill. Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen and, attracting a level of "Isn't this groundbreaking!" attention that feels quaint a decade later, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet all were given moments to shine and did.

And the kids, who were forced to go through the leaps and bounds of puberty in very public fashion, were all resourceful performers in their own right, with Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter getting the most opportunities to stretch. I know the show is ending, but I would be happy to revisit these characters at some point in the future.

The name "Modern Family" put a lot of pressure on the series to be all things to all people, to simultaneously embody the progressive and conservative in ways that probably weren't fair. The Cam/Mitchell relationship was especially under the microscope, and I get why there was some criticism of their initial lack of onscreen intimacy. They were stuck with a lot of the more flailing farce of later years — Burrell's Phil and Vergara's Gloria were frequent victims as well — but if you look at the Cam/Mitchell marriage in totality, it had a sweetness and complexity that mostly worked.

Modern Family was never going to actually be able to capture every modern family experience, and this is where I see its greatest impact and influence. It set a foundation on ABC that allowed at least a dozen other family comedies to thrive, albeit never quite at the same level of popularity. Other networks, even those with strong comedy brands, have struggled to develop one or two solid family comedies in the wake of the Modern Family premiere, but ABC has churned out one after another after another, and even if Modern Family wasn't a snapshot of the diverse experiences of the 21st century American family, ABC became that snapshot.

Without Modern Family, there's no Black-ish and no Fresh Off the Boat and no Goldbergs and no Speechless. There's no Roseanne reboot (and The Conners) or Last Man Standing or Dr. Ken or Cristela or The Kids Are Alright or American Housewife. Hey, they weren't all critical winners and they weren't all audience favorites, but that's a lot of cultural experience that was represented onscreen in the wake of Modern Family that had either been ignored entirely or marginalized in past decades of programing. Modern Family was a cornerstone for something special, and as the landscape becomes more and more fragmented, I don't know if we'll ever see another moment when a single network is able to program between five and 10 above-average family comedies at once.

And I definitely don't know when we'll next see a broadcast show exhibit the sort of Emmy domination that spawned my almost involuntary resentment of the series starting five or six years ago. Despite that resentment, and despite all of those years of more-miss-than-hit farce, I never stopped watching. I won't miss everything about it, but I'll miss Modern Family, and just because it never lacked for press in its heyday doesn't mean it deserves to go out without fanfare.