“Modern Family” has ushered in a new age of the feel-good sitcom

By Lori Acken

When ABC began promoting its new sitcom Modern Family this time last year, critics and viewers alike weren’t sure quite what to make of it.

On paper it seemed awfully gutsy — or maybe even lazy — replete with that guy who played Al Bundy (in a red velour tracksuit!) as its biggest star and what, in any but the deftest of hands, would be a barrelful of touchy stereotypes and TV clichés. Rich older gent with hotsy-ditzy trophy wife. Bumbling suburban dad and know-it-all mom. Homosexual couple with adopted Asian baby. And here’s the kicker — they’re one big happy family!

But critics who got the first peek battled for the glossiest superlatives … and as for everyone else, well, those commercials sure were a hoot. So when viewers began tuning in — and they did in droves — they found a show so organic, kindhearted and (still!) gut-bustingly funny that an instant hit was born, even as Family found itself pitted against its critical-darling feel-good equal, the FOX phenom Glee.

“I totally, completely agree with you that when I first heard the idea, I thought in my silly little mind this is either a formula for something genius — or something really generic,” says Ty Burrell, who frequently steals the show as overly exuberant Dunphy dad, Phil. “And I think you’re right that, in lesser hands, it would be nothing but stereotypes. But, in my opinion, the show has an infinite upside because there are so many combinations and so many storylines that can be told in the family. While that would be such a challenge to a writer who wasn’t as skilled as they are, for them it’s just a huge open playing field.”

“They” are the show’s not-so-secret weapons, series creators/writers Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan, who had previously collaborated on such long-running comic megahits as Wings and Frasier. Having worked with Burrell on the short-lived 2007 Kelsey Grammer vehicle Back to You, the two men — who frequently traded stories about their own broods as they worked — had another role in mind for their rubber-faced master of comic timing, and eventually Modern Family was born.

"This is a true ensemble -- maybe more so than any show that I know of" -- Ty Burrell

“Those two guys represent two parts of a whole as a writing partnership,” Burrell says. “And then we got really, really lucky because there was a comedy drought on television and some of the best writers in Hollywood were between projects or doing something on their own and we ended up with a writing staff who, if you go through all of their resumés, they’ve all had their own shows — and could have their own shows right now.” Writers including Bill Wrubel of Ugly Betty and Will & Grace, Dan O’Shannon from Newhart and Cheers, and King of the Hill’s Brad Walsh and Paul Corrigan.

So while each episode tells a tale oh-so-familiar to every family, modern or otherwise —birthday parties and vacations gone haywire, technology troubles, sibling rivalry — in the hands of this all-star comedy team and the crack cast hired to bring their work to life, America’s most “Please say no one saw that!” moments seem like, well, the best moments ever. And if we can belly laugh as they happen to the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker crew, maybe we can laugh a little easier at our own family foibles.

Which just plain feels good — something plenty of folks are craving in this era of job loss, home foreclosures, oil spills and other widespread ugliness.

“Chris Lloyd describes it as nourishment,” Burrell explains. “People were confused by certain shows not getting an audience, and I think his point is that people do want to laugh — but there is something in storytelling that you want to be nourished by it, too. And I really do think that the writing for Modern Family is nourishing. And that’s not going to change. Even if, for some reason, there was another trend, say, and comedy went back to snarky shows, I know for a fact that this show is not going to change. They’re not going to back off of it.”

With good reason. In its freshman season, the series garnered 14 Emmy nominations*, including nods for each of its adult cast members except Ed O’Neill, shocking viewers and insiders alike and leaving some to wonder if the entire cast’s decision to submit themselves in supporting categories cost O’Neill his first shot at a little gold lady.

But that decision, says Burrell, was a no-brainer for the entire group, O’Neill included, and inherent to the genuine connection felt by everyone involved in the show.

“We all were feeling that this is a true ensemble — maybe more so than any show that I know of — so it made sense to us. And the fact that we all submitted ourselves as supporting is symbolic if nothing else. We love this show and a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Which is also, he points out, why its all-star writing team remained intact for the show’s sophomore season, beginning Sept. 22. Some of the stuff they have in store for their Family: An earthquake; a possible new addition for one family unit; and — oh how we can’t wait to see this one — some Family members finding themselves in the middle of a very public “flash mob” dance routine.

Burrell can’t wait to see it, too.

“Because we often film most of the episodes separately, I have the benefit of watching a good portion of every show just like every other fan. And my love for those two other families is so deep. I think it’s one of the intangibles that really defy analysis — I certainly couldn’t explain it — but the chemistry in our cast is real. We really do feel like we’re a family.”



Other Nets Are Joining In The Family Sitcom Affair This Fall

Better With You (ABC)
Capitalizing on the success of Family (and its equally cuddly counterpart The Middle), ABC is rolling out another three-pronged family tale about a couple approaching their golden years who lost their savings in the economic bust, and their relationship with their two adult daughters — one an earnest Type A and the other a spirited spark plug with a baby on the way.

Raising Hope (FOX)
Copping Family’s single-camera style, this comedy follows three generations of the Chance clan living under one roof and how they cope with the arrival of a baby girl born of slacker son Jimmy’s one-night stand.

$#*! My Dad Says (CBS)
William Shatner stars as Ed Goodson, a decidedly un-PC military doc and three-time divorcé, in this comedy based on the popular Twitter feed and book. When his younger son Henry finds himself out of work and out of cash, Ed invites him to move home, secretly hoping for a second chance at being a decent dad.


Modern Family: © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies. Credit: Eric McCandless

Ty Burrell: © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies. Credit: Danny Feld