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A reunion with the family sitcom

'Modern Family' leads a pack of new fall series, including 'The Middle' and 'Accidentally on Purpose,' seeking to restore the faded genre.

September 20, 2009|Scott Collins

It's late on a hot afternoon in August, and the producers of ABC's new comedy "Modern Family" are debating panties.

The crew is shooting a scene on a Century City soundstage with Ty Burrell, who plays Phil, a suburban dad who can't stop embarrassing himself or his three kids. At the end of a complicated spat with another family member, Phil winds up covered in ladies' underwear just as his wife walks in.

Watching the scene on a nearby monitor, Christopher Lloyd, who once ran "Frasier" and is the co-creator and executive producer of "Modern Family," thinks there may be too much lingerie. He wonders if they can do another take to make the scene-stealing Phil look less like, well, a panty-loving pervert.

"We're already doing enough weird stuff with this guy," Lloyd said.

Indeed, "Modern Family" has to tread a fine line between weird-funny and weird-weird. It's intended as a family comedy, but it also has to make a strong impression on viewers. It has a lot more riding on it than the usual sitcom. The series will serve as the 9 p.m. anchor of ABC's risky effort to re-brand Wednesday as its new comedy night. The other entries are also family-themed, including "Hank," with Kelsey Grammer as a downsized corporate titan, and Patricia Heaton as a harried suburban mom in "The Middle."

"Modern Family," though, is already grabbing the most attention. The pilot tested so highly among focus groups that, in May, ABC executives took the unusual step of screening the entire episode to a crowd of advertisers in New York, where it drew favorable reactions.

But few new shows face such a tough battle against prevailing programming trends. Family comedy? Come on. Those things went out with "Malcolm in the Middle." Thanks to cable and the Internet, families today just don't watch TV together anymore. The grown-ups watch "30 Rock" or "How I Met Your Mother," the kids watch "iCarly" or "SpongeBob SquarePants." It's also no secret that Americans' conception of what constitutes "family" has broadened considerably since the white-picket-fence mythos of "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It to Beaver" reigned in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The producers of "Modern Family" seem to realize the enormity of their task, but they're hoping ABC can be patient. Because they're aware what happens when a network is not patient. Their previous project, the newsroom farce "Back to You" starring Heaton and Grammer, aired just 14 episodes before Fox pulled the plug.

"It's gonna take awhile for people to hear about us and come to it," Steve Levitan, an affable Midwestern native who made his fortune with "Just Shoot Me" and is now Lloyd's creative partner, said in his office, which is decorated with pictures of his own family, which serves as one of the show's ongoing inspirations. He added, "I think we'll probably get our butts kicked in the ratings for a while."


Open secret

"Modern Family" is an ensemble show set in three different households. Phil, a real-estate agent, and his wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), have the traditional nuclear family. There's a gay couple, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who have just adopted a baby daughter from Vietnam. And then there's Jay (Ed O'Neill, who rose to fame two decades ago as the loudmouthed shoe salesman Al Bundy in "Married . . . with Children"), a man who's trying to throw off the indignities of late middle age -- one funny bit from the pilot shows him struggling to rise from a lawn chair at a kids' soccer game -- by taking a trophy wife (Sofia Vergara).

The pilot's secret, which the producers had hoped to preserve until the premiere, is that these people are all related; Claire and Mitchell are Jay's grown kids from a previous marriage. But ABC decided to give away the secret in its early promotions because research showed that otherwise viewers thought "Modern Family" was an anthology show.

Steve McPherson, who runs ABC's prime time entertainment, said he wanted viewers to have the same reaction hearing about the show that he did when the pilot was pitched. "When (they) told me they were all connected, I was like, 'Sold! We've got to have this show,' " he said.

Levitan said he and his colleagues were "very disappointed" that their surprise was spoiled, but they understand why. Besides, they believe the show has plenty of other qualities that help it stand out from the sitcom pack. Chief among them: The use of a "mockumentary" storytelling style, a la NBC's "The Office."

"Modern Family" tries to find most of its humor in the margins: Throwaway comments, offhand gestures and a free-floating, well-fortified sense of irony. In that, it strongly resembles "Arrested Development," the Emmy-winning sitcom about a very warped clan that never managed to find a sufficient audience on Fox but has become a DVD hit.

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