'Modern Family' Creators Open Up About the Series Finale (and the State of a Spinoff)

Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd talk with The Hollywood Reporter about the decisions that went into bringing their Emmy-winning comedy to a close: "The best endings are actually beginnings that don't try to put a period on a series."
Eric McCandless
'Modern Family'

[This story contains spoilers from the series finale of ABC's Modern Family.]

After 11 seasons, 250 episodes and 22 Emmy wins, ABC officially closed the book — at least for now — on its megahit Modern Family. The comedy, co-created by Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd, wrapped its run with back-to-back episodes that sent multiple members of the family away from their Los Angeles home, but left the literal light on for a potential spinoff.

Jay (Ed O'Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) are headed, together, to Colombia, with the former finally learning Spanish. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) move their newly expanded family to Missouri. Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Dylan (Reid Ewing) move, with their twins, into Mitch and Cam's former home. Luke (Nolan Gould) is heading to Portland, Oregon, to attend college. Alex moves to Switzerland for work with her boss turned love interest (who happens to be Haley's ex). Manny (Rico Rodriguez) is off to France for a year. And now empty nesters, Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen) opt to hit the road in an RV touring baseball stadiums.

To hear Levitan and Lloyd tell it, the ending was designed to mirror real life and the ways in which families often splinter, with the final shot — Phil and Claire leaving their porch light on — as a sign that everyone will come home again.

Below, Levitan — who directed the first half of the finale — and Lloyd talk with The Hollywood Reporter about crafting the finale, the potential for spinoffs and saying goodbye to a beloved family comedy at a time when much of the world is at home, with their own families.

What inspired how you ended the series, sending so many members of the family away?

Levitan: It's something that we have been gravitating toward for a season or two. If we had gone 10 seasons, then the first of the new generation of the family, when Haley had her kids, would have been a really nice part of that ending. But when we decided to go for the 11th season, this seemed like a good way for people to express what they have all meant to each other.

Lloyd: The best endings are actually beginnings that don't try to put a period on a series. To finish everybody with a great final line or we somehow tell the audience what is going to happen to them for the rest of their lives is a mistake. The series is going to live on, the characters are going to live on in the audience's mind, so it may be best to set people off on new paths and then let the audience imagine them on those paths and almost let the series live on in each individual viewer's mind. With that as our guiding principle we thought, "What are good journeys to put people on?" It's a matter of crafting those changes and giving these characters a chance to say goodbye to significant others within the family. The family got to say goodbye to the family. It's not like they're never going to talk to each other, see one another again, but they know that it will never be the same. And that's life. People do move on. And families remain intact, but they maybe aren't quite the same.

Levitan: We talked about a lot of different possibilities but we all really like finales in which the characters in some way have to say goodbye because that's what the audience is experiencing. Finales like M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore come to mind. I did something like this on Just Shoot Me years ago where a character left and in doing so it's a moment for that character to express to the others what they have meant him or her. It's what the audience is experiencing. They are about to say goodbye to these characters on some level. It's emotionally satisfying to let the characters experience the same thing that the audience is.

And the final scene of the series is Phil and Claire leaving their porch light on, which felt very fitting.

Lloyd: It seemed hopeful. We didn't want the audience to feel like this family fractured and would never be reconstituted. Phil and Claire would leave the light on and there was the suggestion that these family members will come home and they will be happy together again at some point. It just seemed a hopeful way to end the episode.

You also were able to play with the number of times the family was together for the last time. Was that part of the struggle to say farewell to the series?

Lloyd: It was tricky to control any sentimentality, so that's what led us to the idea of starting with the goodbye and almost playing with our own form in that we have them gathered for a hug and then the whole thing gets undercut because the plane gets delayed. It seemed like a fun way to steer us clear of too much emotional goo on the episode, though there is certainly plenty of that.

How did you settle on building the finale around Mitch and Cam moving to the Midwest?

Levitan: We've been talking for a long time about what would get them to leave, what would be realistic? Somebody could have gotten sick; they needed help on the farm; there were a lot of options. Cam trying to get a job and then finding out that he doesn't get that job? That disappointment leads to them making some other gigantic decisions to fill that emotional void. It had a lot of nice twists and turns and that evolved over time. The question was how many twists and turns could we throw at this thing. But life happens like that. You make some decisions based on a particular set of circumstances and then those circumstances change and that's real life.

What was the biggest challenge in crafting the finale?

Lloyd: The biggest challenge was which pairings to explore. There was a lot of talk about giving Jay and Mitchell a father-son moment, but we settled on brother and sister, Mitchell and Claire, because they are going their separate ways. And we wanted the kids to have a moment. We wanted Phil and Claire to have a moment. They are on the brink of a new life and we wanted to make sure we checked in with them about how it feels to be empty nesters and feeling the family separate around them. In a perfect world, we would have had another 10 to 15 minutes to explore more of these things, but then that becomes a series of goodbyes and that can get redundant. The main goodbye is everybody saying goodbye to the family and that's really what it comes down to: everybody knowing that things will be different hereafter and let's just have a last moment to really honor each other and this family that we've gotten to be a part of.

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke has been vocal about wanting a Modern Family spinoff of some sort. Is there a way to do that without featuring everyone from the cast? Where are you with the idea of a spinoff?

Levitan: There has been a little bit of talk among a couple of our writers that maybe there is an idea in there for something, but nothing solid has happened on that. I love these characters and these actors are amazing and I would work with any one of them again. I've been on this for 12 years and I made a conscious choice that I was going to see this through from beginning to end, because when I had done Just Shoot Me years ago I felt they left that show too early. So personally, it feels like it's time to move on and to start focusing on something very different. Maybe, after a little while, I will be reinfused with a great idea or somebody will come forward with a great idea and I will either get involved or give it my blessing or whatever, but for right now, I'm just focusing on new things.

Lloyd: It's tempting to think about what a spinoff might be. We have had conversations about it and we'll see if that comes to pass. It would need to be right; whatever a new show might be would be fighting a very heavy and probably unfair burden, which is a comparison to Modern Family. We don't want to do a series just because we want to keep the thing going or because we miss it. It would need to be a solid idea in its own right and that may happen, it may not. But it will get discussed. But it's a tall order.

Chris, as you kick around ideas, is there one specific storyline that you're gravitating toward?

Lloyd: I'm loath to discuss it too much because the conversations are early. Some of the [endings] are natural ones. It's something that were we to do it, it can't just be more Modern Family; it's got to be some of our show but with new characters mixed in, perhaps. I spent a lot of years on Frasier, and that was a great version of a spinoff because you took a single character and put him around a bunch of other characters and it became a whole new world and it almost made you forget about the show that he had come from. We wouldn't go that far; it wouldn't be one character, but it might be a couple and we'll see where that goes. But it's a conversation now that could come to nothing, but it could also come to something great. I hope it does come to something great, but I'm really not sure.

How would you even begin to pick from these characters? It's like picking your favorite child. Would you want to revisit some or all of these characters with a holiday special or some other type of one-off?

Lloyd: It's true. The idea of leaving viewers wanting more is the goal. I would love to write more all of the characters, but there is some danger in doing that. Would we do a retrospective hour to bring people up to speed? Probably not. If we feel as though we left things in a good place with this finale and there is some danger in coming back and doing a postscript, that doesn't leave things in as good a place. But it's tempting.

Other series finales have offered a bit more resolution of sorts with a time jump. Have you thought of where these characters might be in five years? Was that something you considered for the finale?

Lloyd:
Not really. We thought about doing something that answered those questions but for our show, I think it would have been a mistake to not just let the audience imagine these people's futures but to tell people what their future was. It puts too much of a period on things, and I'd rather have it be just open-ended and let people imagine their own futures for these people.

What do you see what do you see as show's legacy? And the fact that it's ending as much of the world is quarantined at home and prioritizing family?

Levitan: We debuted at the very beginning of the Obama administration and that was a pretty optimistic time; the world was ready for some change. I think whoever is in the White House affects comedy in some way. I'm never quite sure how it's going to happen, but it just seems like the mood of the nation changes based on who is running the country. It was a positive time and our show reflected that. I'm hoping that the feeling of togetherness in this moment [of quarantine] is maybe reflecting on the best we can be rather than the worst we can be. Maybe this finale comes at a needed time for people. People are scared, getting cranky and frustrated and going through a lot, and maybe this will be an hour of something that reminds them of our better spirits, our better selves and better times that we will hopefully return to.

Lloyd: When we did it right, we were a nice combination of laughs and pathos. People could tune in and reliably laugh and also maybe be moved at the end. I think it was a nice experience for people to have a family show that wasn't too treacly; it had sophistication to it, people could watch it with their family. It may be even more welcome today than it was then because people are stuck in their houses and feeling down. If our last episode gives people a chance to remember this show fondly, to go through watching it with one another the way they have a lot over the years, that's great. I hope that continues in future years and when we're on a streaming service and people can revisit it. I think the finale is a classic kind of Modern Family affair with a good mix of laughs and emotion, and hopefully that will provide a bit of a distraction and maybe a little uplift for people in a tough time.

Levitan: It's not lost on us that our show ended with a big group hug. That, these days, looks very strange. But it was a short time ago and we'll be back.

Did you keep anything from the set?

Lloyd: I took the picture of the family all dressed in white splattered in mud that was the family portrait that they shot at the end of season one, and it's actually what the camera finds at the end of the tag in this final episode.

Levitan: The only thing I requested were the two pillows from Phil and Claire's couch, from where they always did their interviews. We made sure the crew and everybody got to take things that were meaningful to them. I am taking a lot in my heart.

What's next for you? Steve, you just signed a new overall deal with 20th TV.

Lloyd: Kicking around some Modern Family ideas. There is another possibility with actors that I admire who are considering doing television, but they're preliminary. Having said that, Modern Family is a very tough act to follow. There is no pleasing everyone in a finale and we hope people like it. It's really been fun doing the series. I, as much as anyone, am sorry to see it go, but the characters will live on for all of us.

Levitan: I am focusing on what will happen when things come back to normal. I'm working on four projects in various stages [of development]. I'm writing a pilot right now and I'm getting involved with some other ideas as well.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.