Why ‘Modern Family’ — The Most Formulaic Show On TV — Is An Emmys Favorite

At last night’s 66th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, ABC’s Modern Family joined the rarest of TV company when it won its fifth statue for Outstanding Comedy Series. Only Frasier had ever had that kind of success before, having won five in a row from 1994 to 1998, and some could argue that Modern Family’s current run is more impressive, because it didn’t have the benefit of being spun off from a beloved series like Cheers (and others might then argue that Frasier was more impressive, because spin-offs are usually hot garbage).

Now with five wins in the five seasons that the show has been on television, Modern Family is arguably the most celebrated sitcom in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, with more Outstanding Series wins than Cheers (4), All in the Family (4), Taxi (3), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (3), The Dick Van Dyke Show (3), 30 Rock (3, despite being the best show ever created), The Golden Girls (2), Murphy Brown (2), I Love Lucy (2), Seinfeld (1), and even Friends (1), which was beloved, but not actually a good show.

So where did it come from?

Better yet, how on Earth did a show that debuted in 2010, anchored only by the star power of Ed O’Neill, become such a critical juggernaut? After all, the “mockumentary” style had already been celebrated at the Emmys in 2006, when The Office took home its only trophy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Simply put, Modern Family was created by two men, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, who know a thing or two about writing, developing and cultivating TV hits.

Levitan already had five series under his belt by the time that ABC gave Modern Family a full season order right out of the gates in 2009. While Just Shoot Me! was his only show to catch on for more than two seasons, he also had writing credits on Wings, The Larry Sanders Show, Frasier, and The Critic, so there were hits among the misses. (He’s also the guy who brought us the horrendous Stacked, which will forever be cemented in my head as a hilarious Greg Giraldo roast bit.) Lloyd, on the other hand, wrote for The Golden Girls, Wings and Frasier, so he presumably picked up a number of tricks along the way. Together, Levitan and Lloyd had the experience to put together a winning formula, so all they needed was the story, and they found that in their own personal experiences.

So how is this show any different from the rest?

Modern Family, like so many other sitcoms before it, is a show that was developed out of the idea that all of our families are crazy, but this fake family takes the cake while serving us pieces of morality. This “modern” family, as it is, focuses on one side – in this case, the Pritchetts – and the dissimilar people that they’ve chosen to marry, as well as the children they’re raising.

The series formula is quite simple, as each of these seemingly different but tightly-connected couples faces new problems each week, and they must overcome their differences to get past these obstacles. After all, the moral of this series is that no matter how wide the divide or the differences between two people, love and family are all we ever need. What makes us modern, I suppose, isn’t that a family features mixed-age or same-sex couples, as much as we’re still learning to overcome the new problems affecting us by using the same basic morals and lessons that we learned in Father Knows Best.

So how does a show with such an obvious formula keep winning?

TV shows with formulas are nothing new. Even Frasier Crane put his pants on one leg at a time and then tried to balance his unusual personal life with his career as a professional and minor celebrity psychiatrist. Cheers was ultimately a series about a bartender trying to find love with Diane and later Rebecca in between sleeping with every woman in Boston, and Friends existed around the question of “Will Ross and Rachel end up together?” and by the end, “Can it be in a toilet and can I push the lever?” Even 30 Rock, as ridiculous and wonderful as it was, all boiled down to whether or not Liz Lemon could have it all.

To Modern Family’s credit, the writers and directors are very good at balancing three different stories per episode. However, more often than not, it feels like any given episode starts as a standard blurb like:

Phil does something stupid and has to deal with Claire’s disapproval. Mitchell and Cameron overreact and fight over something silly. The age difference between Jay and Gloria causes them to disagree over perspectives, specifically when it comes to raising Manny and Joe. In the end, it all works out with a heartfelt statement and some sweet music. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes special guests stop by to antagonize the problems or offer their own solutions, but more often than not, the side characters are simply something different so that we know it’s not exactly the same story being told. Fred Willard might show up as Frank Dunphy to give us insight as to why Phil is such a dork, or Benjamin Bratt could arrive as the smooth-talking Javier Delgado to remind us why Jay is a better father to many than Gloria’s first husband ever will be.

The clear advantage that Modern Family has over the shows that it beats each year is that this ensemble cast is able to perform so well and take advantage of the strong writing to make us think that each episode after the next is taking us somewhere, despite the fact that we’re really standing still.

So every episode of Modern Family tells the same story?

For a show that has only been around for five seasons, Modern Family feels like it’s in its 10th season. That’s partially because we’re not used to seeing any sitcoms be this successful these days, but also because redundancy makes it difficult to remember the difference between an episode from last week and one from last year. But for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at one episode from each season to determine just how different they really are.

The Bicycle Thief (Season 1, Episode 2)

Phil buys Luke an expensive new bicycle because he was previously riding a girl’s bike, but refuses to get the insurance because he thinks it’s a waste of money (Claire disagrees), and when he accidentally steals a bike that isn’t Luke’s, Phil has to fix it all. Meanwhile, Mitchell and Cameron overreact to Lily falling behind the other kids in daycare, so they scheme to make her seem like she’s on par. Jay’s macho throwback style puts him at odds with Manny, who doesn’t know what it means to get his hands dirty, and that affects his plans with Gloria. In the end, they’re a family and that prevails over all.

The Musical Man (Season 2, Episode 19)

Mitchell overreacts to being put in charge of the school’s music program, and he and Cam clash when the latter tries to talk some sense into him. Phil buys a car wrap advertisement for his agency that makes Claire and Haley, when driving and riding in it, respectively, appear to be prostitutes (unbeknownst to them), so he has to fix it all and stop people from calling to have sex with Claire. Jay and Gloria clash over the idea that he doesn’t know his own brother, and therefore doesn’t appreciate family like she does. In the end, everything is fine, because family is always there for us.

Door to Door (Season 3, Episode 4)

Jay thinks that Manny needs to roll up his sleeves and learn how to sell wrapping paper the old-fashioned way – door to door. Manny, on the other hand, is a kid wise beyond his years, so he’d rather just trick the old man and move right along. The overpowering perfectionist Claire decides that she wants a stop sign at an intersection near their home, so she asks her family to help her get some signatures, which they do, but only after they screw it all up. Cam makes a huge mess and refuses to clean it up, which causes Mitchell to criticize him, and they fight about it. In the end, family cleans up all messes together.

Yard Sale (Season 4, Episode 6)

Gloria talks Jay into hosting a yard sale to help Luke and Manny raise money for a school fundraiser, but Jay is literally the old man who wants everyone off of his lawn. When Jay decides that it’s time to sell his motorcycle, Phil shows interest, takes it for a test drive and then falls over, trapping his leg underneath for his very own 127 Hours moment. Mitchell and Cam get into it when the former doubts that the latter can keep up his latest diet, and doesn’t think that Cam should sell his bigger jeans just yet, since he’ll only end up having to buy new pairs when he adds the weight back. In the end, Gloria’s terrible ventriloquism makes the family laugh and they forget all of their problems.

Three Dinners (Season 5, Episode 13)

Gloria fights with Jay to get him to admit that he’s upset about Shorty leaving. Phil and Claire try to force Haley to make a decision about her future, only to have the table turned on them because kids aren’t as dumb as they look (another common theme to Modern Family episodes). Cam and Mitchell are bored with their own relationship, so they interfere with the couple at the next table in the restaurant and end up making a mess of their relationship. In the end, they all learn to focus on their own families first, because family is all that matters.

Sure, five episodes or 4% is a small sample size, but I guarantee that many more of the show’s 120 episodes would fit perfectly into this mold, some even better than these that I chose off the top of my DVR (It’s important to note that I like and watch this show).

So why are so many people watching if everything’s always the same?

Despite the fact that so many of these episodes tell the same basic story over and over, Modern Family has averaged 11.6 million viewers per episode over all five seasons. The lowest rated episode, Season 1’s “Fizbo,” drew 7.1 million viewers, which is still enough to make some other sitcoms drool. By Season 3’s “Dude Ranch,” 14.53 million people were tuning in to watch, and 10.45 million were invited to “The Wedding (Part 2)” to close out Season 5. The show’s ratings are consistently strong, depending on whom you ask, because even as we’re experiencing the storytelling equivalent of Groundhog Day, the writers do it in a way that most people probably don’t even realize that these characters have hardly evolved between September 23, 2009, and May 21, 2014.

The show’s window dressing is exquisite, as the nonstop cameos and worn out plot devices are more than enough to help hide the fact that this family takes more vacations than American politicians. David Cross, Edward Norton, Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Lane, Kevin Hart, Rob Riggle, Patton Oswalt, Kobe Bryant, Danny Trejo, Adam Devine, Leslie Mann, Jesse Eisenberg, and so on and so forth have all stopped by to make the Pritchetts’ lives a little better or worse. Meanwhile, the family has spent time in Hawaii, Wyoming, Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Australia, while adding one baby to the mix in Season 4, and teasing the idea that Mitchell and Cameron want a boy next, while Phil and Claire agreed to never say never.

Short of having one of the families adopt Leonardo DiCaprio or adding a talking alien who grants wishes, Modern Family has very few devices left to lean on in Season 6 and beyond. They could continue to take the Happy Madison route and spend every episode going on different vacations, or maybe they’ll steal a page from O’Neill’s old show, Married… with Children, and desperately jump into fantasy role play episodes like “Peggy and the Pirates.” Levitan, Lloyd and Co. shouldn’t have to do any of this, though, because they’re incredibly good at what they do – “Open House of Horrors” is one of the best episodes of any show ever written” – even if part of that is playing the system with a classic formula.

So what’s the solution to make this Emmy favorite series… better?

Take some chances and evolve the characters. Modern Family is an Emmy darling because it plays everything safe, which isn’t a knock as much as it’s a concern. Eventually the tank will run dry on any series, but that shouldn’t be a concern after five seasons. Shows are supposed to get stronger as their characters become bolder and more interesting. Sure, being tied with Frasier for the most Outstanding Series wins in Emmy history is a magnificent achievement, especially since Modern Family is 5-for-5. But it can still be so much better.

Every once in a while, Modern Family breaks from its formula and gives us a glimpse of raw, relatable emotion. We especially saw it in Season 5’s 12th episode, “Under Pressure,” which allowed Ariel Winter to break Alex’s mold and show us something real – a vulnerable teenage girl, tortured by her own inadequacies and the pressure to succeed. The end of that episode was poignant and beautiful, as Alex cried in Claire’s arms as her mom finally admitted that she never understood what she goes through. So what happened next? Not much. Alex and Haley were trapped in the basement because of an opossum a few weeks later. I guess Alex got over it all.

Another example is how Haley shocked her entire family by getting into college. In “Schooled,” the second episode of Season 4, Phil and Claire shared that emotional moment that parents have when they send their child off to college, and them fighting back tears in the car as Haley called to thank them was as sweet as it gets. So what happened next? One episode later, she was expelled and moved back home, and a season later she’d realize that she wants to be a photo blogger. Admittedly, that might be the most modern thing that ever happened on this series.

If you count funerals as vacations, the whole family also got to go to Florida at the end of Season 4 for Phil’s mom’s death. As I already wrote last week, my fondness for Ty Burrell’s acting is all too real, as Phil Dunphy is the most gloriously dorky and wonderful dad in TV history, even despite the repetitive nature of the show. But his emotional moments in “Goodnight Gracie” were also wonderfully unexpected, and that’s what makes it all so frustrating.

As good as Modern Family is, it should be better. That’s not to say that it doesn’t deserve five consecutive Emmys – many people would argue that it hasn’t deserved them compared to the competition – but just as we should hold award-winning shows to higher standards and expectations, the people who give the awards out should expect better as well.

So what’s on tap for next season?

Steve Zahn is joining the show as the Dunphys’ annoying neighbor. We’re not going to see him every week, though, probably because the family will be on vacation again.