Modern Family used broad, inoffensive comedy to be the last, great traditional sitcom, but it felt old and out-dated even when it first aired.
The American sitcom used to be a dominant force in television, but with broadcast networks being overtaken by streaming services, the genre has become a casualty in the streaming wars. Though it’s hanging on with a Night Court revival, The Neighborhood, and a few streaming standouts, sitcoms have been suffering since the end of the last great sitcom, Modern Family. From 2009 to 2020, ABC dominated ratings and award shows with the powerhouse half-hour sitcom, at the time, it felt like a throwback series, and now, years after the finale, it’s clear that the series was the last of an extinct breed.
Modern Family twisted the classic sitcom formula by adopting the “mockumentary” approach of The Office, with frequent moments of the characters speaking directly to the camera. Broadening the focus to include every member of the extensive Dunphy family, centered on three separate households, making a full ensemble out of a genre traditionally focused on a small set of characters. The smartest move made by creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, an ensemble cast allowed for stories about the adults and the kids in equal measure, without anyone getting the short end of the stick.
The award-winning cast, included Ed O’Neil, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould, Rico Rodriguez, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Jeremy Maguire, and the game for anything Reid Ewing. Between them, the cast was nominated for over 100 awards, winning nearly half of them, and we will never again see a series pull off that feat. Modern Family is the last of the monoculture sitcoms, the ones that brought in millions of views, became cultural touchstones, and went on to earn millions per episode in syndication.
Network comedies have faded, and those that aimed squarely at middle America and the largest possible base of viewers are now gone. When Modern Family went off the air, critics had already started writing eulogies for the sitcom, but now, three years later, it’s become more clear that all of the success that the series had will never be replicated ever again.
The sitcoms of today are mainly found on streaming services, including Netflix‘s That 90’s Show, and Peacock’s Night Court, and no matter how many minutes they may be streamed, it will always be a small fraction of the 10 million average that tuned into the Dunphy’s once a week.
Beyond Modern Family airing at the same time, on the same day, every week, making it appointment viewing, the series focus on a family and universal plots anyone could relate to (assuming they were upper-middle class and raising kids), made it the viewing equivalent of Foxtrot’s golf comics. Now that steaming has divided viewers, it’s been more effective for studios to focus in on a small section of the audience instead of going big and broad.
The Big Bang Theory, which predates Modern Family by a few years, made sure to make most of the “nerd humor” as understandable to the grandparents watching as the young kids that wanted to be Twitch streamers. In what seems almost quaint now, the ABC sitcom also made a point to appeal to everyone and in doing so, not offend anyone by having an edge only slightly sharper than that of The Bob Newhart Show.
Inoffensive, family-focused, and about well-off characters, Modern Family is the last of the traditional sitcoms, and it’s a good thing that no one is trying to follow in its footsteps. Instead, more subversive and innovative comedies have been filling the void, especially those that deconstruct the sitcom. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Schitt’s Creek are just a few of the post-2000 breed of comedies that are thriving in a streaming world.
Notably, Modern Family received criticism for how it depicted the female characters, all of whom were stay-at-home moms to start the series. In addition, despite winning awards for how it depicted a gay couple in Mitch and Cam, they rarely kissed or even embraced while on camera. Today, showing a gay couple will anger half of America, while treating them as if they are special porcelain dolls that will break if touched will anger the other half.
Though the cancelation of Modern Family ended the era of massive network sitcoms ruling the airwaves, the one good part about streaming is that shows get to live forever. A new generation is discovering Friends, Home Improvement has been re-discovered, and at some point, the pendulum will swing back to the family-centric sitcom becoming “popular” again. Until then, the series can be streamed in its entirety on Peacock.