No matter how hard you fall for a long-running sitcom, it’s inevitable that your love will eventually be tested. After a few seasons, the laughs taper off and the show hits a rough patch. The actors—by now signed to lucrative contract extensions—grow bored and start focusing on outside projects, while the writers get burnt out and their attention also wanes. To re-energize themselves as much as their viewers, these shows enlist a variety of stunts for creative inspiration: A live episode! Musical numbers! Very special guest stars! Filming on location! A surprise pregnancy!
This growing ennui has long plagued Modern Family. Now in its fifth season, it’s still beloved by many viewers (it remains ABC’s top show in the 18-49 demographic) and Emmy voters (three Outstanding Comedy Series wins in a row followed by an Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series win means something, right?), but the series has been in a creative rut for some time. The characters and performances may still be funny, but more often they’re familiar. And while the show has tried several of the aforementioned tricks—three and counting—it hasn’t reignited that initial comedic spark that made it so irresistible.
But this season, something remarkable happened. The show crawled its way back onto my must-see list thanks to a wholly unexpected character: Lily Tucker-Pritchett, the 6-year-old daughter of the show’s gay couple, Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who adopted her from Vietnam in the show’s pilot. As played by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, also 6, Lily has suddenly become the show’s MVP and its go-to character for delivering its darkest and funniest lines. During the season premiere (“Suddenly, Last Summer”), as Gloria’s (Sofía Vergara) son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) prepared to board a plane to Columbia, a nervous Lily asked, “What if he never comes back?” Her grandfather Jay (Ed O’Neill) tries to reassure her, “Honey, no one ever leaves home and doesn’t come back.” Lily’s droll reply: “I did.”
This is the latest example of a sitcom reaching way down its supporting bench, plucking out an underused actor, and relying on their unique, refreshing comic flavor to ride out a rough patch. It’s an essential asset, especially for sitcoms, which thrive on repetition. Characters are reset at the start of each episode, conveniently forgetting whatever lessons they learned the previous week. Therefore, Jay and Gloria will always have generational and cultural disagreements; Phil (Ty Burrell) remains confident yet clueless, while wife Claire (Julie Bowen) acts controlling and semi-shrewish; and Mitchell is busy talking Cam off the ledge after their latest overblown drama. None of the couples will ever split—which is a shame, as it would truly make them a modern family—not even Cameron and Mitchell, who actively seem to hate each other 90 percent of the time and would obviously be much happier with other, more compatible partners. It’s the circle of sitcom life: Each week starts with a clean slate.
Which is why at this point, I’m watching specifically for Lily, and the opportunities she’s given to shine each week. She’s even a pro at silent gags: In the tag of recent episode “The Help,” Lily grows increasingly frustrated as her dads squabble about their upcoming wedding. She puts on her headphones to drown out the screaming, bangs her head against the table, imitates them talking with her hands, and finally storms off. She didn’t say a word, and I couldn’t stop laughing. The shift is all the more surprising given what a comedy-suck the character was in earlier years. By season two, the twins playing Lily as an infant hated being onscreen so much that they simply went stoic in front of the camera; when the role was recast in season three with Anderson-Emmons, it took the writers another season to figure out how to best use her. This year, they finally cracked the code. “One of my favorite things about this season is what a great little actor @AubreyLily has become,” tweeted writer and executive producer Danny Zuker recently.
Modern Family isn’t the only long-running sitcom that is shaking things up by relying on a supporting character to help the show find its way again. Parks And Recreation has gotten a lot of mileage out of Donna, whose Twitter obsession (which mirrors Retta’s real-life Twitter Goddess persona), has become the show’s most reliable source of laughs in an uneven season. In early years, she was literally a background player, but the writers have increasingly given her more storylines (starting with her breakout “Treat Yo Self” moment in season four’s “Pawnee Rangers”). Now, with most of the cast happily coupled off—even unlucky-in-love Ron Swanson has fallen mustache-over-heels in love and remarried—and Leslie Knope’s political aspirations quelled since she won her city-council seat in season four, Donna is finally getting some much-deserved attention.
Meanwhile, the top-rated sitcom on TV, The Big Bang Theory, smartly broadened its comedic horizons a few years back by grabbing onto Mayim Bialik, who popped up in the season-three finale as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler and was bumped up to the main cast midway through season four. She’s such an integral part of the show now that she was nominated for an Emmy in 2012. Curb Your Enthusiasm hit a new comic gear when it stumbled upon Larry David’s spectacular chemistry with Leon Black (J.B. Smoove). Even Cheers—which boasted one of TV’s all-time finest ensemble casts—still leaned heavily for several seasons on Frasier Crane (initially introduced as a rebound love interest for Diane after her split with Sam) and later, his girlfriend and eventual wife, Lilith.
All of those examples of sitcom-saving supporting characters have one essential ingredient in common: They were allowed to organically evolve from a bit part into a larger role. Too often, long-in-the-tooth family sitcoms—whose child actors are now well into their teenage years—bring in a new young actor in a desperate attempt to recapture that show’s initial “cute kid” magic. Cousin Oliver popped up in the final episodes of The Brady Bunch, and is the most infamous example of this, but several popular ’80s sitcoms were unable to resist trying to turn back time, including Who’s The Boss? (Billy), Diff’rent Strokes (Sam) and Married… With Children (Seven, who was such a disaster that he simply disappeared after a handful of episodes).
While Lily and Donna are the main reason I’m tuning into their respective shows, I’m not advocating for either of them to suddenly become the leads. After all, that way lies madness—and Steve Urkel. Family Matters remains the most terrifying example of what can happen when a breakout character like Urkel (who was introduced midway through the Perfect Strangers spin-off’s first season) is allowed to run amok. (Yes, Urkel, you did do that.) And let’s not forget Happy Days, whose elevation and deification of supporting player Fonzie ended up with the show literally jumping the shark. Nobody wants that.
A little Lily and Donna go a long way, and prove that the best sitcoms know when it’s time to shift gears and let their supporting members do the heavy lifting for a bit. But it’s still only a temporary fix, and before long, it will be necessary to shift the focus back to its main characters. Here’s hoping the creative jolt from the supporting players will help these shows reclaim their comedic glory for seasons to come.