May 23, 2013



After 4 seasons as a smash hit, MODERN FAMILY isn’t too concerned with creating forward momentum.  The show is better at what it does than just about anything else on television; the ratings may be down, but so are everyone’s; in short, it ain’t broke.  If that makes for a season that’s more pleasant and sweet than fall out of your chair hilarious, Family is just fine with that.

Even the one “big event” of Season 4, the pregnancy of Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and birth of her baby son with Jay (Ed O’Neill), had less of an impact on the series than you might think; Gloria gave birth about midway through the season, and a few episodes after that, little Fulgencio was in the show’s background.  The only other semi-running arc on the show was Claire (Julie Bowen) and brother-in-law Cam (Eric Stonestreet) partnering on the renovation and flipping of a neighborhood house, which had its set of amusing bumps in the road and then worked out just fine.  Mostly, Modern Family stuck to small, daily family misadventures (Claire’s college reunion, a family drive in an RV, Gloria meeting her ex-husband’s new girlfriend, etc), exaggerated just enough to draw some laughs, but almost always with an eye on the humanity of the characters.

Tonight’s season finale, written (with fellow Executive Producer Jeffrey Richman) and directed by series co-creator Steven Levitan, was a fair example of the series as a whole.  The occasion for the episode was the death and memorial service for Phil’s (Ty Burrell) mother, and rather than going for the kind of black comedy that such a situation might have inspired on a show like The League or Happy Endings, or eccentric gags like the Elvis impersonator bit on the episode of  New Girl where Nick’s father died, for Modern Family it was a cue for whimsical humor and a light dusting of sentiment.   Phil’s mother had left behind instructions for Phil to fix up his father (guest star Fred Willard) with a local widow, and after a misunderstanding that led Phil and Claire to pretend they were very bad vacuum cleaner salespeople, it turned out his mom’s idea hadn’t been a bad one.  Meanwhile, Cam became hooked in to all the retirement community gossip, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) had his yen for the courtroom revived when he had to defend Gloria on an old Florida charge of promoting prostitution (she wasn’t guilty), Jay had a nostalgic encounter with his “first,” and Alex (Ariel Winter) learned a bit about her grandmother’s past.  All the stories were gracefully balanced within the 22 minutes of the episode, every one of them had a succinct beginning, middle and end, and they all generated laughs (or at least smiles) while working within our understanding of who these characters are, never pushing too hard for easy yuks.

The price of this kind of polished craft may be a certain lack of spontaneity and inspiration–every episode of Modern Family is pretty much like every other–that makes for a very even but unsurprising viewing experience.  (It came as a shock when the show delivered one semi-conceptual storyline, when the Dunphys met a family who were exactly like themselves 20 years from now.)   Of course, most people are very happy to get familiar, high-quality entertainment they can count on, which is why Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Whatever are tops at the boxoffice right now.  The usual hit show vagaries of contract disputes and showrunning changes aside, Modern Family seems capable of delivering its quota of charm and laughter in a professional, satisfying way for seasons to come.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."