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'Modern Family' goes in for a group hug

After 11 seasons, the ABC comedy ended its Emmy-winning run with a bunch of new beginnings. The creators talked about the emotional finale and the added resonance of having it air during quarantine

By Bruce Fretts
Published: Apr 11, 2020

Image: Getty Images

(Ask a Showrunner)

This interview contains spoilers for the “Modern Family” series finale.

After 11 seasons, 250 episodes and five best comedy series Emmys, ABC’s “Modern Family” wrapped on Wednesday with an hourlong finale. Yet it often felt more like a beginning than an ending, as the members of the show’s extended clan were sent off in new directions.

Phil and Claire (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) decided to embark on a cross-country RV trip after all three of their kids moved out of the house; Jay and Gloria (Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara) planned to spend the summer visiting her relatives in Colombia; and Mitchell and Cameron (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) moved to Missouri after Cameron landed his dream job as a college football coach.

“Not to get too pretentious about it, but you hand the series over to the viewers at the end to do with the characters what they want,” Christopher Lloyd, who co-created the sitcom with his fellow “Frasier” veteran Steve Levitan, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “To launch everybody on these new paths seemed like a hopeful way to end the series.”

“We always tried to be a happy show,” Levitan said in a separate phone interview. “Everybody was heading towards something that sounded pretty good.”

The showrunners discussed what it was like to have the finale land during the coronavirus crisis, the possibility of a spinoff and the episode’s homage to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Q: Did you look at other sitcom finales to see what to do and not to do? I loved the homage to the group hug on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” finale. That must be very personal for you, Christopher, since your late father, David Lloyd, co-wrote that episode.

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: I was there for the filming of that episode, so it was hard not to have that one in mind and give it a tip of the hat. But there’s a danger in studying too much how other shows have ended because you can overcorrect away from what others did.

STEVE LEVITAN: I mostly thought about finales I really liked, with “Mary Tyler Moore” being a really good one. What I like in a finale is for the characters to get a chance to say goodbye in some way because that’s what the audience is going through. The audience is having to say goodbye to these characters, so it’s nice for that emotion to be reflected on the screen.

Q: Did you also see a parallel between what the characters were experiencing and what the cast and crew were experiencing — bidding farewell to loved ones?

LLOYD: I don’t think it’s too often that you have actors feeling the same things the characters they portray are feeling. But this was the apotheosis of that because we had everybody feeling a tremendous sadness about walking away from this family we created, and the characters were doing exactly the same thing. So there was a lot of very real emotion coming from our actors.

LEVITAN: Through the years, we always knew how lucky we were: The way the show came together, the accolades, the success and the fact that we had a really happy set. Feeling it come to an end was a sad notion for us, but at the same time, I can’t complain for one second. It was a dream run, and to protect the legacy of the show, it was time to let it go.

Q: Do you feel the finale has a different resonance now than when you shot it, before the coronavirus crisis had started to have a widespread impact on Americans? [The series finished filming on Feb. 21.]

LEVITAN: The most glaring thing is that giant group hug. That’s not something you see in real life these days, so it feels like we shot that 20 years ago. But I can’t tell you how many times through the years people have thanked us because we helped them through a tough time, be it a death, a divorce, an illness or losing a job. I love the idea that during this dark time in the world’s history, hopefully our finale can provide people with a little respite.

LLOYD: In one way, it’s nice that people will be home and may be inclined to watch the show with their families one last time. People are reacquainting themselves with their families, good and bad, and may be clinging to them more than they have in the past. That’s certainly a theme of the finale, so I think there’s a resonance.

Q: Would you say Jay’s evolution as a character — he now embraces both Mitchell and Cameron as his sons, and he’s learning Spanish so he can converse with Gloria — reflects some cultural changes that have happened in America since the show started?

LEVITAN: Jay was the character who started out with one foot in the old way of thinking, and he was trying to figure out his way in a new world. By the end, he has fully planted his other foot on the more progressive side. He’s been through a lot, and it’s hard for people who grew up one way to see the world changing so fast. But he seems to have come out better for it.

LLOYD: The character made a decision for himself that he wanted a second run at a family and to do better than he did the first time, when he ended up getting divorced and wasn’t necessarily the best father to his kids. He didn’t know so much would be thrown at him in this do-over, but it was nice to see him evolve. And it’s fair to say he might represent a certain quadrant of our society that has come around on issues like gay rights and interracial marriage.

Q: Still, some things never change: Jay never completely warmed up to Phil.

LEVITAN: We couldn’t ever let them get too comfortable.

LLOYD: It’s not altogether unrequited love. It’s still awkward between them, but Jay grudgingly accepted and learned to love Phil nonetheless.

Q: How does this finale feel different from the end of “Frasier,” which also ran 11 seasons?

LLOYD: When the “Frasier" finale aired, about 60 of us went to a restaurant in New York City and watched it together. For this finale, we’ll all be in our individual homes with no co-watching.

LEVITAN: This feels like the end of an era. “Modern Family” was a big mass-appeal hit. It’s hard to imagine another network show getting the same kind of audience that we were able to get. Audiences have so many more choices than they used to. Maybe in some way, we’re the last of a breed, and that also adds a little poignancy to all of this. 

Q: What’s the status of a possible spinoff?

LLOYD: It’s under discussion, but we would have to get an idea we thought was right and had a chance of succeeding. We went through this on “Frasier” after “Cheers” ended. It’s a tough act to follow, and you open yourself up to a lot of criticism and hyper-scrutiny in trying it. But we’re certainly giving it some thought, and we’ll see where it takes us.

LEVITAN: If a good idea comes around that we all believe in, I’m open to it.

Q: Jay has a line in the finale about life being full of changes and trying to make the best of it. How are you doing with life after “Modern Family” and in the age of coronavirus?

LLOYD: It’s not a great synchronicity because there’s a natural sadness to saying goodbye to what’s been a charmed life. To walk away from that into a quarantine isn’t ideal. It would be better to be stepping into a life with lots of distractions and new things to think about.

LEVITAN: This is such a fascinating time. Our world had gotten so fast. Our attention was split in so many different directions, and there were a thousand opportunities to do things. You would be flooded with Instagram stories of your friends doing fun things, and you would think, “What am I doing sitting at home?” It’s an incredibly rare moment when you can pretty much relax in the knowledge that you’re not missing out on anything. You can choose to stay home and be with your family, and that’s a wonderful thing.

©2019 New York Times News Service