When Modern Family won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, I was livid. A derivative show which mashed the mocumentary-style of The Office up with the formulaic family sitcom (a la Everybody Loves Raymond), I couldn’t see how it could it could possibly rank as more “outstanding” than Glee, another nominee in its first season which revolutionized what we thought television could be. Inclusive, ingenious, and in more than one way groundbreaking, Ryan Murphy’s dramedy about a misfit show was far more deserving than yet another show about a (mostly) white upper-middle-class family.
I still think Glee deserved the 2010 Emmy, but having watched Modern Family over the years, my opinion of it as “trite and derivative” has changed. As the sitcom aired its series finale last night, I began to consider its place in the annals of television history. Far from being just another boring sitcom about rich white people, I have come to appreciate that, in its own quiet yet hilarious way, Modern Family helped pave the way for more diverse representations of American families. Indeed, it challenged the notion of what “family” even is in modern America.
Back in 2009, when both Glee and Modern Family debuted, they were notable for including two types of characters up to that point rarely seen in American scripted television: gay me and Latinas. For Glee, this was central to the show’s identity from the very first episode. Inclusion became its raison d’etre. Sometimes that felt heavy-handed, but even when it was more subtle, the writers were loud and proud about their intention to make sure this show represented as many people as possible.
Modern Family took a more subtle, but no less effective, approach. The first episode centers in part around gay couple Mitch and Cam revealing that they have adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. The reveal—in which Cam (played hilariously by Eric Stonestreet) holds up his daughter, Lily, under a spotlight as “Circle of Life” blasts over his home sound system—is both gut-busting hilarious and incredibly moving. It is also very, very camp—a trope the show never shied away from but never exploited.
Herein lies the beauty of Modern Family. Mitch and Cam are not the sanitized Jack McPhees of Dawson’s Creek nor the one-dimensional stock character of Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland. These characters are gay—they’re written with gay sensibility, they have mostly other gay friends, their cultural references are familiar to any gay man (even if they aren’t always familiar to straight audiences)—but they aren’t defined exclusively by their sexuality. Like many real gay men, they both embrace some things which would be considered “stereotypical” (a love of show tunes, matching silk robes, Cam’s flair for the dramatic) but also defy them (Cam is an ex-football player and current coach; Mitch has a dry wit and low tolerance for tomfoolery).
The show was perhaps less successful in avoiding stereotypes with Gloria (Sofia Vergara), the beautiful Latina and second wife of Pritchard family patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill). Many jokes in the early years revolved around the other, white characters’ inability to understand her accent, her supposed criminal past in Columbia, and relied on objectifying her in some ways which, only a decade later, feel incredibly sexist and dated. Yet Gloria was mostly treated by the writers and therefore the other characters as an integral part of the family. When she was portrayed as an outsider, it was usually alongside Cam and Phil (Ty Burrell), the other characters who had married into the family.
She, too, developed into a more complex and interesting character than the stock character of the fiery Latina she might have been in less able hands. Because of this, Modern Family was able to explore the immigrant experience with compassion and heart, even as immigrants were being vilified by politicians and even the President.
What truly made Mitch, Cam, and Gloria—and by extension, Modern Family—so revolutionary, though, was that they were loved and accepted by their immediate relatives. That dynamic—an extended, blended family consisting of characters diverse both in demographics and personality—was as central to the show as inclusion was to Glee, and it is arguably just as important. It’s hard to quantify just what impact these characters had on American society, but as The Atlantic reported in 2015, some people who previously opposed gay marriage attributed their change of heart to Mitch and Cam.
In that way, at least, the Pritchetts and the Dunphys have left an indelible mark on American society. They loved one another as much as any family. The show wasn’t always the most innovative, but it was warm, cozy, and often funny, like that Christmas sweater your grandmother knitted you which you pretend to sneer at but secretly wear when the winter is just a little too dark and cold.
The series finale was a fitting coda, as the family moved on, being split across continents and oceans as they all went their seperate ways. Though filmed months before the current pandemic, it felt incredibly prescient watching these characters struggle with the idea that their tight-knit family would be seperated, with no idea when they might again be together. At a time when we all wish we could—but can’t—be with our crazy uncles, uptight sisters, or grumpy grandpas, it was comforting to spend one last night with Family.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan