[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “Modern Family” finale, Season 11, Episode 17 and Episode 18, “Finale Part 1” and “Finale Part 2.”]
After weeks of hype leading up to a two-hour “Modern Family” finale, it’s odd to reach the end and think these last few episodes didn’t have enough time. Of course, one of those hours was dedicated to the documentary, “A Modern Farewell,” which looked back on the landmark ABC sitcom’s ups (five Emmy wins for Best Comedy Series!) and, kind of surprisingly, its downs (like when Jesse Tyler Ferguson remembered hearing groans after winning that fifth trophy).
But the finale itself was basically divided between two purposes: surprising the audience with Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Ferguson) moving to Missouri (not to mention all the Dunphy kids leaving their parents’ house), and then letting these characters say goodbye without becoming overly sentimental. While that last point is appreciated — too many comedies betray their roots in the final moments and lay on the waterworks — the “Modern Family” finale struggled to unite its warm-hearted story about the unbreakable bonds of family with the unwieldy reality of different people who want different things. (In its prime, the show got the latter right, again and again.)
If “Modern Family” lost a step over the years — and it did — it was never more obvious than Phil losing a toenail in the finale’s cold open. (OK, that’s not entirely true. One Season 11 intro featured a joke that was just Dylan screaming at the same time as a person on TV.) This opener tries to replicate the show’s classic rat-a-tat rhythms by showing how chaotic the Dunphy household has become with three grown children (and two grandbabies) living under one roof. With his mom shouting up the stairs and his sisters moving in between rooms, Luke rushes to use the bathroom and slams the door into his father’s foot — setting up the pre-titles joke where Phil complains about missing sandals season with a broken nail…
At best, this bit serves as an homage to the series’ heyday, when it found smart layers of humor in savvy verbal misunderstandings and perfectly blocked physical comedy. At worst, it shows how little the show has left in the tank, even for these last few miles. While the first three seasons or so of “Modern Family” offered an incomparable combination of low-brow, all-ages comedy — pratfalls, insults, sight gags — and high-level, well-respected execution — tight blocking, witty wordplay, propulsive editing — that’s not the kind of marriage that can last 11 years, especially on a broadcast schedule. Instead of delivering 10-12 great episodes out of 22-24, the latter years’ batting average dropped closer to Cam Gallagher than Cam’s dream players.
Following that model, there were about three or four good chuckles in these final 44 minutes. Two came from the inevitable personal connections you make to whatever random, wide-ranging joke felt like it was written just for you. For instance, I liked every reference to a pig (except maybe Hamtrak, the Missouri livestock train, since that’s a little too close to coastal snobbery than I can tolerate), as I love pigs, and I’m also a fan of Cam and Mitchell naming their newly adopted son after the street by their new house. (A few friends did that two years ago, and their choice, Rhodes, is an even better name than Rexford.)
The others came from Ed O’Neill standing stubbornly still during a game of charades, agreeing to whatever his family guess. (“I just want this to be over. Can we be done with games?”) When O’Neill brings his A-game, no one can beat him — except maybe Ty Burrell, whose expert embodiment of human misunderstandings was almost good enough to sell his last bit with O’Neill, when Phil climbs into bed with his father-in-law, thinking he’s being asked to comfort him when Jay is actually just talking to his electronic Spanish tutor. Phil and Jay have had a number of embarrassing run-ins over the years, and this isn’t one of their better ones — Jay’s explanation for talking to himself comes right before Phil’s misunderstanding, which makes the bit feel predictable and on-the-nose — but at least Phil gets one more good/awkward line in with Gloria (Sofia Vergara).
Being just funny enough may have made the ending worth it for anyone tuning in after years away from the “Family,” except for the awkward way the series ends up addressing its many characters’ ultimate fates. Jay and Gloria are pretty much fine. Manny (Rico Rodriguez) is moving away for the summer, but his future appears to be living with one of his parents for the rest of time. I don’t know what that random scene was with Cam and Gloria, but Cam and Mitchell are moving to Missouri, so the former can coach football and the latter can support him. The Dunphy kids all move out at once, sending their parents into an empty nest scenario that is honestly hard to think about, even as a non-parent. And it’s up to Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil to drive home the last sentimental note. When Claire breaks down into tears and asks her husband what they’ll do now, Phil says, “What people have always done. Leave the porch light on. They come back.”
ABC / Eric McCandless
The episode’s final shot matches those parting words of wisdom. When the lights dim in Jay and Gloria’s house and then Cam and Mitchell’s, the same happens to the Dunphy home, until the porch light shines through the closing credits. Along with the brief montage of everyone traveling that precedes it, the shot makes for a hopeful note to go along with a tight-knit clan breaking apart. Admittedly, sticking a landing like this is pretty hard, but there are a lot of problems with this being the series’ ultimate resolution. For one, all these changes happened so fast! Why not spread them out over the final season, so viewers could come to accept such big life decisions over weeks instead of an hour? Also, no one wanted any of the main characters to die (remember that failed tease?), but such an open-ending leaves too much room for a revival, spinoff, or both! (And they’re already talking about a spinoff!)
What the “Modern Family” finale ultimately proves is what we’ve all known for years: The show should’ve ended years ago, when it was better equipped to tie together all these subplots, characters, and themes. Now, we’re left with an ending that doesn’t really want to be an ending. Maybe that’s enough the casual family audience, but I have to believe modern viewers demand more.
Select episodes of “Modern Family” Season 11 are available to stream on ABC.com and Hulu.