It’s difficult to unpack Modern Family’s legacy. You certainly can’t trust the ABC-created narrative, where the show was a lone example of progressive representation when it first premiered in 2009, because plenty of other shows were handling more complex issues. But was Modern Family progressive in terms of the sitcom? You could make that case a little more easily, especially considering that the show premiered near the end of the Charlie Sheen era of the massively popular Two And A Half Men and only two years after the rather reductive The Big Bang Theory first graced our TVs with jokes about nerds; Chuck Lorre was certainly putting his stamp on things.
Modern Family might not have been the brilliant, progressive stand it’s often marketed as, but there is something to be said for the way it normalized the type of family you didn’t typically see on TV. The show tackled social issues here and there in its early days, and did so under the rather strict format of the sitcom; remember when every episode used to end with a saccharine monologue and that acoustic guitar soundtracking the outro? But its greatest flaw was also its greatest strength: it was incredibly funny, and therefore didn’t need to be political, though perhaps it should have been more political, but also isn’t there something mildly radical about just being the show it was? Like I said above, it’s difficult to unpack the legacy in retrospect.
It’s difficult because these things move in increments, something that Apple TV’s Visible: Out On Television recently did a great job of underlining. True change in the media landscape takes time for a number of reasons, some more sinister than others, and as much as I always wanted more out of Modern Family, there’s no denying that its mere presence and its massive popularity as measured by ratings and awards had a net positive impact. And again, those first five seasons or so are genuinely hilarious.
If anything, it’s the beautiful march of progress that came to swallow up Modern Family. Like a formerly progressive text that’s now dated and slightly problematic, Modern Family helped to usher in shows that simply surpassed its own stab at diversity and progressive values. As the jokes and storylines dried up—there are some highlights every season, but most seasons after Cam and Mitchell’s wedding are largely made up of misses—other shows came to occupy and expand the space the show once held. Look no further than One Day At A Time, a sitcom that feels fresh and contemporary while rolling out episodes that are heartfelt, political, and nuanced.
Modern Family didn’t solely pave the way for more diversity on the screen, but its fading into the background can be somewhat attributed to the roster of diverse shows that came in its wake. Once the show hit that emotional crescendo of Cam and Mitchell’s wedding, it struggled to come up with new, challenging storylines. So, like so many sitcoms before it, Modern Family fell into a formula. The characters became one-note, the conflicts more exaggerated and cliche, and the once overly sentimental tone was replaced by a nastiness that too often steered the characters into cruel confrontations that made the show truly unpleasant to watch.
The final season didn’t exactly redeem the show, but it did settle into a more comfortable groove. It was as if the writers and actors could see the end coming, and decided it was time to adopt the easygoing nature of a show on its way out. There were still some truly disastrous arcs this season, but for the most part you could define this final season as “perfectly fine.” Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise, but it feels like an apt description. There were a few highs, more than a few lows, and then a whole lot of stuff that just fell in the middle. This is a “B/B-” season if you’ve ever seen one.
Which brings us to the show’s final two episodes. In a lot of ways, the show went out exactly as this season intended it too. There’s nothing too showy, nothing that can really be described as shocking. Essentially, it’s a finale that’s all about change and just how difficult that is. Cam ends up getting that offer to move back to Missouri and coach the college football team; Phil and Claire decide that their house is too full and one of the kids has to move out; Jay and Gloria cope with Manny leaving in different ways.
There’s a lot of predictable comedy in here, but there’s also something that’s satisfying in just how low-key it is. The finale doesn’t necessarily shoot for outsized emotions. Instead, it makes things personal. We watch as Haley, Alex, and Luke reckon with what it means to be finally all living on their own. We see Mitchell step up to support Cam and take on a big move. We feel the conflicted emotions of Phil and Claire as they move from wanting one of their kids to move out, to lamenting their empty nest. None of this is remarkable, but I think that’s okay. It’s a finale that suits Modern Family as it is in 2020; a show that’s settled into old age.
Modern Family doesn’t have a next chapter, but these characters do, in their own way, and we can imagine what that looks like. This is a finale that’s both tidy and unfinished, and that feels just right.
- I spent five seasons on the review beat, and despite my general grumpiness about a lot of the show during this period, I’ll say this: it’s been consistently delightful to talk with readers, mostly on Twitter, about this show. You guys have shown up each and every year, and you’ve chastised me for looking for too much in the episodes and praised me for my consistent hatred of Manny as a character. It’s really, truly been great. So, we should probably bow out with Jay’s wonderful words. “Not everybody gets to have what we have.” That’s a good thing to remember as we move through our tumultuous times.