When the “Modern Family” cast first assembled, Jesse Tyler Ferguson was surrounded by strangers.
The auditions had been separate, he told the Television Critic Association in January. Now he was meeting his fictional family.
“I remember Sofia (Vergara) giving everyone hugs. I was like, ‘This is the nicest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in my entire life. And she (plays) my stepmother.’”
They would continue for more than a decade. Ten-and-half years after the opening episode (shown here) debuted, “Modern Family” ends its run Wednesday on ABC.
The show had arrived at a slow time for comedies. Cable and streaming hadn’t started scoring with “Veep” and “Fleabag” and “Mrs. Maisel” and such; NBC’s long surge had faded.
“Seinfeld” had ended in 1998, “Mad About You” in 1999, “Friends” and “Frasier” in 2004, “Will & Grace” in 2006. Even Thursdays went to reality. “We’ve gone from Must See TV to ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Biggest Loser,’” producer Tom Werner said in “Top of the Rock” (Doubleday, 2012).
So when “Modern Family” began in 2009 on ABC, it made an instant impact. For five straight years, it won the Emmy for best comedy series. For two of those, it had a remarkable sweep: All six adults were nominated for supporting Emmys; they filled four of the five supporting-actor spots.
The timing was perfect in another way, producer Steve Levitan said. Most of the run was “during a time when things felt a little bit happier in the world.”
This was midway between the 2001 World Trade Center attack and the 2020 virus. The economy was starting an 11-year upswing. The Obama administration had arrived, with a get-along mood.
It was an ideal time to meet a family that was scattered, strange (Manny is Luke’s uncle, but they’re the same age), untraditional (including a gay couple) and deeply loving … despite sniping. “The imperfect relationship is what made it so relatable and real,” said Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron, the boyfriend (and now husband) of Mitchell (Ferguson).
Leading this eccentric clan was Ed O’Neill … after a brief hiccup.
Craig T. Nelson was originally cast, but the show and his agents couldn’t agree on a contract. (That happens; it’s the reason “Dr. Quinn” was Jane Seymour, not Mel Harris.) O’Neill became the patriarch, in the show and on the set.
“He’s helped me from the very beginning,” said Rico Rodriguez, who plays his stepson Manny.
Rodriguez was 10 when the show started. “I really didn’t have any idea what was happening …. Some of the jokes would just fly right over my head. He was just there to make sure I understood things.”
He was part of a low-key set attitud that was signaled by those long-ago Vergara hugs. Ferguson has talked about Stonestreet (a former athlete) enthusiastically trading football talk with a crew member. “I kind of blank out then.”
And Ariel Winter, who plays O’Neill’s granddaughter Alex, talks about his philosophy:
“We made a little chapter book of Ed’s advice. One of my favorites was: ‘Why stand when you can sit? Why sit when you can lay down? Why lay down when you can be in your car going home?’”
– “Modern Family” series finale, 9 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday (April 8), ABC. An overview is at 8.