It usually takes a few episodes for great sitcoms to find their legs, work out the kinks, and figure out what they’re about. Modern Family, however, was the rare sitcom that was a huge hit right out of the gate. In introducing three diverse families, that pilot episode was the perfect blend of funny and sweet, ending with a touching scene that saw old-school Jay Pritchett accepting the adopted granddaughter of his gay son into the whole Modern Family clan.
Modern Family continued in that vein through the first season, blending the zany antics of the various families with heavy doses of poignancy. Somewhere along the way, however, the fusion of those two sensibilities — comedy and sweetness — ceased. This week’s Thanksgiving episode is the perfect example: We’d expect the Dunphys and the Pritchetts to ratchet up the warmth for a holiday-themed episode, but the episode was all farce, and very little heart. Contrast that, for instance, with the fifth-season episode, “Under Pressure,” which saw Alex seeking the help of a therapist, who opened up the alienation Alex feels for being the family’s lone overachiever. That episode, which wasn’t as wild and farcical as some other Modern Family installments, ended on a heavy, heartbreaking note.
Indeed, if you look closely, since the third season of Modern Family there has been a detectable shift away from funny and heartfelt episodes, and toward funny or heartfelt episodes. Creatively speaking, most critics would also agree that — despite the Emmys and despite the ratings success of the sitcom– Modern Family is not quite the same as it was during the sitcom’s early years.
To understand why, it helps to look at the show’s co-creators, Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd. The two writing partners didn’t come together as friends exactly, but as business partners. They knew each other from Wings, but Levitan’s background was in the broader comedies, like Just Shoot Me, while Christopher Lloyd oversaw nine seasons of Frasier. The two forged a partnership in 2006 out of economic necessity. Sitcoms were struggling, and individually, they’d struck out: Levitan with the Pamela Anderson sitcom, Stacked, and Lloyd with the quickly cancelled Henry Winkler laffer Out of Practice. The two men believed that, by working together, they’d have a better shot at generating a successful sitcom, although their first attempt — Kelsey Grammer’s Back to You — was a quick failure.
During a brainstorming session after the cancellation of Back to You, Levitan and Lloyd pitched a lot of terrible sitcom ideas, but in the midst of those bad ideas, the two began telling each other stories about their families, and about their children. It was those stories that would later form the basis of Modern Family. Levitan brought to their writing partnership broad comedy chops, while Lloyd brought the sentiment.
Few expected, however, that Modern Family would succeed — it was an old-school family sitcom in a world of cynical comedies, and it used a mockumentary style that had already seemed to have worn out its welcome on shows like The Office. The naysayers, however, were wrong. Modern Family was an instant hit, thanks in some part to the smart sensibilities of the show, and in some part to the diverse cast, which attracted an audience from a wide array of demographics.
The show immediately took off, and the mood of the show reflected the perfect balance between the sensibilities of Levitan and Lloyd. But somewhere along the way, that balance fell out of whack. It might have been because Modern Family broadened its comedy to appeal to an even wider audience. It might have been because, like a lot of sitcoms, Modern Family began to repeat itself. But I think there’s a simpler answer:
Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd had a major falling out.
This is not exactly a secret, but it’s also not widely discussed. In 2010, Levitan and Lloyd dissolved their business partnership. Up until then, there were plenty of rumors that the two men were bickering, that they were no longer getting along, in large part because of the clash of their sensibilities: Lloyd preferred the classier brand of comedy he’d perfected in Frasier, while Levitan veered toward the kind of comedy you’d expect from a sitcom starring Pamela Anderson called Stacked.
There were a few trade notices about their dissolution in 2010, but not much was made of it at the time. Though their business partnership had fallen apart, the two still continued to run Modern Family amicably. Only after the dissolution, a different arrangement was struck: The two men would no longer work together on the show. They would work separately. Like in a divorce settlement, the men split custody of Modern Family. Levitan oversaw half of each season’s episodes, while Lloyd oversaw the other half. Rumors have it that there were even separate writers’ rooms, one for each man.
To be fair, there was never any outward animosity between the two. In fact, they seemed to handle it like mature adults responsibly looking after the children they loved following that divorce. They simply had a difference of opinion.
“Chris and I are both strong, opinionated people, and we very, very quickly realized it doesn’t make sense to sit here and debate each other and waste time,” Levitan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 to explain an arrangement between the two men in which they rarely interact. “We often come at it from different points of view, so we said, ‘Let’s just switch off who has final say.'”
Christopher Lloyd, in that same interview, agreed. “We had different ideas about what the things were that were making the show click,” he says. “That can lead to differences of opinion, and it was not going to be practical for us to argue every point of every episode. [The arrangement that we’ve worked out] will lead to situations where you go, ‘Well, that’s not how I would have done that,’ but it is a much more practical way than to have both of us sort of swing away on every problem.”
Ultimately, however, it was the writing staff and the actors who kept the show together despite those differences of opinion between the showrunners. “Insiders,” however, can reportedly detect a difference between the vibe and tone of “Steve” episodes and “Chris” episodes. But once “outsiders” become familiar with the arrangement, the difference becomes apparent in many instances. There are zany episodes, and there are heartfelt episodes, but the two styles don’t intersect nearly as often as they did in the beginning of the series.
Ultimately, that’s okay. Modern Family continues to win Emmy awards, and it’s still the second-highest rated sitcom on television (behind only The Big Bang Theory). It’s also beloved by many. But it’s not the same. Where once fans of Modern Family felt passionate about the series, now they’re mostly “just” fans. It’s a good sitcom, but it’s not that great sitcom it was before Levitan and Lloyd split custody of the episodes.