It was less than five years ago that acclaimed ABC sitcom “Modern Family” made a splash in the world of television. Mixing its slew of eclectic characters into one giant oddball family was one of the factors that allowed the show to stand out among TV audiences. Having won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series the last four years in a row (no easy feat), “Modern Family” and its fresh take on the dysfunctional family genre have managed to not only earn it a barrel of awards, great reviews and solid ratings, but also a potential place in television history. The only issue that puts its legacy into question is the looming possibility — which may have in fact already occurred — that the series is not quite so “modern” anymore. Or at the very least, “Modern Family” may not be making the impact it did a mere five years ago.
To start, the series, as many others have in the past and will likely do so in the future, has lost some of its initial luster. The luster referred to here, of course, was originally derived from the inclusion of minorities as central characters on a network sitcom — particularly the Colombian (played by Sofia Vergara) and, more notably, the gay couple (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) raising an adopted Asian baby. While the cast consists primarily of non-minorities, the combination of the two made for one of the most unique ensembles in television comedy. Not only that, but the first season’s ratings showed that such a refreshing notion of family was in fact welcomed by audiences, with the show’s ratings increasing quite well over the following two seasons (going from 9.4 million to almost 13 million viewers).
However, while the show started out riding a tidal wave of critical and ratings success, the last two seasons have dwindled on both those fronts, which leads to the question of ‘why?’ To answer that, one would need to dissect the ground which “Modern Family” was bold enough to break. Looking back, it seems somewhat hard to believe that even in 2009 the concept of a gay couple raising an adopted baby would be so shocking to viewers, especially when they aren’t pushed to the side for more traditional characters. Even “Will & Grace,” which also broke new ground in television, barely scratched the surface of that concept, with Will often only pointing out the perils of being gay when it came to wanting a family (in fact, it wasn’t until the show’s very last season that we see him with a husband and child).
“Modern Family” took that concept much further in a way no mainstream show has done before — and it obviously paid off. The show was even credited with reviving the sitcom, which is far from being an absurd theory given ABC’s track record of doling out unmatched hits every few years such as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” all of which ultimately renewed audiences’ faith in network TV. But as was the case with all of those shows, the ability to keep the initial momentum is a daunting task that few series manage to pull off. This is especially true given the intense competition that inhabits the TV world nowadays, with the golden age of television having begun shortly after “Modern Family” premiered. And with shows such as “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones” and above all else, “Orange Is the New Black” all prominently featuring minorities and/or strong independent women, the hit ABC sitcom seems quite tame in comparison. “Black” even has a male-to-female transgender as a significant member of the ensemble and has developed the character in ways that are unprecedented.
So what exactly is holding “Modern Family” back from making the impact it did not so long ago? Though time is the most evident factor, it is not an absolute one. One likely theory has to do with the criticism it received even back in its heyday, which related to the depiction of women on the show, and the fact that in these so-called modern families, the female characters were housewives who depended entirely on their successful husbands for their livelihoods. Vergara’s character in particular has been portrayed as a golddigger who simply latched onto a rich white American male (Ed O’Neill), despite a few episodes attempting to explain her love as pure. What’s worse is that any attempt made by a woman on the show to make a career for herself results in failure, such as housewife Claire (Julie Bowen) running for city council and failing very embarrassingly throughout the whole process. The series also received criticism for the lack of affection depicted by Cam (Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Ferguson), which was interpreted as minimalizing their love. It’s also worth noting the general lack of social issues that affect same-sex couples, which have barely been touched upon in the series.
The writers seem to be making the attempt to mend these issues this season. In regards to the women on the show, Claire is being groomed to take over her father’s business while Gloria’s working class roots have been revealed and credited with justifying her reward of a more comfortable life. Even Cam and Mitchell’s relationship is headed for a grand wedding in the season finale, with the dissolution of California’s Prop 8 being worked into the season five premiere. But the chances of the characters’ situational improvements ultimately reviving the show’s image seem increasingly bleak. What the series holds against itself is the fact that stereotypes do tend to creep up with the show playing its characters’ sexualities or nationalities for laughs, which counteracts its mission to present American minorities in a more favorable contemporary light.
That isn’t to say the show is making no impact at all, nor would it be fair to claim that it will vanish into oblivion after the series finally comes to its end. After all, despite the decline in viewership, “Modern Family” still holds a respectable place in the Nielsen ratings (landing 10 million viewers for its last episode). Not to mention the fact that it may very well be on its way to winning a fifth consecutive Best Comedy Emmy (achieved only by “Frasier” over a decade ago). These facts alone indicate that it still has a place on audiences’ TV timetables. But what initially drew viewers to watch it is far from being what is keeping them around. Let’s not forget that the accolades it has received were more a result of its strong writing, directing and acting than anything else, and it now seems to have gotten to a point where viewers have settled into the weekly goings-on of this dysfunctional family, beginning to see more and more of themselves as they tune in.
It’s inevitable for such a thing to happen in these cases (as in the aforementioned “Will & Grace”), which is why the reliance on “groundbreaking” characters is seldom enough to sustain a series for too long. But the question at hand is whether being “groundbreaking” is enough to account for the impact a show makes both in television and in society. One show to which “Modern Family” has been compared is the quintessential family sitcom “All in the Family.” Four decades later, the Norman Lear show is deemed an eternal classic, having broken the wholesome “Leave It to Beaver”/”Brady Bunch” image of TV families for one that truly examines the dysfunctional elements of family life. Now such a notion seems common and uninventive, but that hardly diminishes the impact “All in the Family” made throughout television. The same argument could be made for “The Sopranos,” which introduced television audiences to the anti-hero and changed the landscape of television to the point where once-shockingly amoral characters such as those on “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” no longer faze today’s viewers.
Ultimately, it may very well be the fact that “Modern Family” no longer breaks new ground or causes a stir that proves the biggest testament to its iconic nature. A show that, five years ago, shocked viewers is now barely making them flinch. It’s become increasingly apparent that people have accepted its unconventional nature and presently view it merely as “the norm.” Even in its depiction of an African-American transgender with familial problems, “Orange Is the New Black” (which can certainly afford to pay tribute to “Modern Family”) may end up becoming obsolete in five years when the next batch of groundbreaking characters make it into mainstream television. Only time will tell just how much of an impact “Modern Family” and other shows of its kind will really make as we examine its eventual place in television history, but one can argue with some certainty that a decline in quality or success is hardly enough to detract from the footprint they’ve left behind.