The cast of ABC's "Modern Family." (Peter "Hopper" Stone / ABC )
It's a two-minute scene of comedy, poignancy and fleeting connection at the heart of a Season 3 episode of "Modern Family,"and for actor Ed O'Neillit exemplifies what the ABC ensemble series does best.
In the "Virgin Territories" episode, sensitive lawyer Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his burly, masculine dad, Jay (O'Neill), are at the country club. Over a couple of beers, Mitch has revealed that his dad never actually sank the celebrated hole-in-one that landed him the nickname "Ace" years ago (as a bored teenager, Mitch had kicked his dad's golf ball into the hole to keep things moving). But what's important, says Mitch, is the way father and son bonded that day. Not so, says Jay, it's the actual hole-in-one that matters. As he sees he's hurt his son's feelings, Jay surprises him by recalling an even better bonding memory. But as soon as Mitch rises to the sentiment, Jay steps all over the moment.
"You can't resolve the problems, because there'd be no more conflict," says O'Neill of the show's sometimes biting moments. "But it's those little connections that are important, because they show there's real love there and that it's sometimes hard to get at, like in everybody's life. I think that sort of comedy is the essence of what the show does."
For the fast-paced "mockumentary" that came roaring out of the gate to dominate the Emmy Awards in each of its first two years, the challenge in Season 3 has been to keep things fresh and evolving, as its creators readily acknowledge.
"We've done 73 episodes, and we don't want people watching it to say, "Oh, it's 9:29 p.m., we're about to get a voice-over homily and a sentimental moment," says Christopher Lloyd, who writes and is executive producer with Steve Levitan. "On the other hand, people tell us they love the format, so it's a balance between disappointing some and making others happy."
"The minute something feels familiar to us, there are plenty of people to cry foul," says Levitan, referring to an avid fan base active on social media and a following that includes many of the town's top television writers. "That helps keep us in line. We can't just say, 'We'll phone this one in,' and accept something less than the best we can come up with, because so many people are watching, and the bar is kind of high."
The key, says Levitan, is to dig deeper into the characters — a process that can mean using the traits and experiences that cast members bring to the table.
For example, Ty Burrell, who plays Phil, really does blink his eyes a lot when he's nervous — a tic the writers went to town with in a recent episode in which Phil has to fire Mitch from some contract work.
"The better they get to know us as people, the more it affects the way they color the characters," says O'Neill, who used the memory of how his own father, a truck driver, dealt with a family member who was gay to help him in a recent episode. O'Neill's father "didn't want to talk about it, but he never stopped caring greatly, the same as he did with other family members," says the actor.
Season 3 also introduced ongoing stories, such as Claire (Julie Bowen) running for office, daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland) looking into college, and Mitch and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) wanting to adopt a second child.
Both Levitan and Lloyd are family men, which provides another ready source of inspiration.
"Probably three-quarters of the stories we tell, even if they seem outlandish, are based on something that really happened to one of us or the other writers," says Lloyd. His sons Owen, 13, and Eli, 17, have provided fodder for the quirky behaviors of Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Luke (Nolan Gould) and Haley.
"My younger son asked for a smoking jacket for Christmas, and that was very Manny-esque, but he also has these brooding questions about his place in the universe that sort of line him up with Luke," says Lloyd.
Creating the show's signature blend of fast-flying comedy mixed with poignancy is a matter of "finding clever ways to express things without hitting them over the head," says Levitan.
Adds O'Neill: "It's like that expression: 'God is in the details.' You can't put your finger on one or two things that explain why the show works. You kind of have to see it."