The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Modern Family’ series finale: A heartfelt end to a show that made us laugh and changed some minds

Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) beg their adult children to move out of the house in Wednesday’s finale of “Modern Family.” (Bonnie Osborne/ABC)
Placeholder while article actions load

ABC’s “Modern Family” said goodbye Wednesday night in a sentimental and hug-filled finale that — oh, just stop it, those of you rolling your eyes and wondering aloud for the thousandth time why the show was still on. You’re heartless!

“Modern Family” was still on in its 11th season because it was still very much itself: an Emmy-laden family comedy, created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, that was reliably filled with lightning-wit dialogue, hilarious misunderstandings and spot-on displays of physical comedy. To the very end, it had a relatable style of humor that could be both sincere and barbed. It also featured a cast that consistently achieved a level of chemistry that most TV shows never come close to having.

In a world gone soft while praising so much mediocrity, I found it interesting when viewers went out of their way to complain that “Modern Family” had lost its magic. It never really did.

What it did lose — what even the best TV shows eventually lose — is the excited buzz that swirls around a breakout hit in its early days, when we’re all just so glad to have finally found a great show. For hipsters, the series finale event this week wasn’t “Modern Family,” it was the last episode of “Schitt’s Creek,” Pop TV’s louche underdog comedy that eventually found a loyal audience on Netflix.

For the rest of America, still tuning in to network prime time by the millions, saying so long to “Modern Family” was a more wistful and prolonged process. Indeed, it was something ABC probably should have done two or three years ago.

Nevertheless, a recap (spoilers ahead!) for those who still want to know about, but probably won’t get around to watching, Wednesday’s one-hour conclusion:

Phil and Claire Dunphy (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen) are found living in the RV in their driveway, self-banished from their home because of the chaos inside. Daughter Haley (Sarah Hyland); her dopey husband, Dylan (Reid Ewing), and their infant twins are living there, along with son Luke (Nolan Gould) as well as middle daughter Alex (Ariel Winter), who has moved back in after taking a salary cut in a new job at a nonprofit organization. Phil and Claire give their children an adult ultimatum: Someone has to move out. Which one?

Meanwhile, Claire’s brother, Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his husband, Cam Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), are settling into their new home with their newborn son, Rexford, and teenage daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), when Cam gets a surprise phone call from the University of North Central Missouri, offering him the job of head football coach. Will Mitchell acquiesce and help Cam follow his dream?

Claire and Mitchell’s father, Jay (Ed O’Neill), and his wife, Gloria Delgado (Sofia Vergara), are managing a role reversal: He stays home with their young son, Joe (Jeremy Maguire), while she pursues her real estate career; Gloria’s older son, Manny (Rico Rodriguez), is preparing to spend a year traveling the world with his itinerant father (Benjamin Bratt).

After a protracted hour, filled with exactly the level of quips and laughs one would expect in any of “Modern Family’s” other 248 episodes (Wednesday night’s two-part finale made it an even 250), decisions were made: All of Phil and Claire’s children moved out of the house. Cam, Mitchell and their kids left for Missouri. Jay taught himself to speak Spanish as a gift to Gloria.

That’s about it, other than numerous group hugs and tears — premoistened by a suitably nostalgic one-hour special that preceded the finale, recalling the show’s essential history: how it was conceived, how it was cast, how much they all really love working with one another and so on. But there were also worthwhile opportunities to reflect on what the show meant to American culture.

In focusing on how Mitchell’s extended family accepted his love for Cam (culminating in the 2014 very special wedding episode), “Modern Family” helped move the needle on how viewers — who also happen to be voters — so dramatically shifted their attitudes about LGBTQ rights in just a few short years.

There is no scientific way to directly prove it, but the path from “Modern Family” to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, allowing same-sex marriage across the United States, seems even clearer in hindsight.

No sooner had Americans met Mitchell and Cam than the poll numbers started to change, including the opinion of then-President Obama (an early “Modern Family” fan), who finally admitted in a 2012 ABC News interview that his feelings on same-sex marriage had “evolved.” By then, “Modern Family” had been airing for three seasons. Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican opponent in that year’s presidential election, also said he and his family enjoyed watching the show.

And yet “Modern Family” was never thought of as political or particularly provocative. It gave people a sense of comfort and belonging, even (or especially) if one’s own family never seemed to have as much acceptance or express as many feelings. It was, after all, only a TV show. As O’Neill’s Jay said during a group selfie on Wednesday’s episode: “Not everybody gets to have what we have.”

It was a pleasure to take an hour or two and once more think back on “Modern Family’s” many inside jokes — the broken step on the Dunphy staircase; Cam’s beloved alter ego, Fizbo the Clown; Gloria’s lovely malapropisms; Phil’s boundless optimism; Claire and Mitchell’s inherited grouchiness (inherited from Jay); Manny’s erudite delusions; Alex’s exasperated intelligence; her siblings’ eternal cluelessness. (“Whatever it was, it looked like Dad was winning,” a much younger Luke once said, in a memorable early episode in which the Dunphy children accidentally walked in on their parents having sex.)

The years come and go, for them and for us. It’s astonishing to think, in 2020, just how many shows cycle past our eyeballs now, many of them barely registering on the collective consciousness. “Modern Family” is among the very last network TV shows that everyone seemed to discover together.

“Modern Family” was also one of the last remaining shows that premiered during the 2009 fall season, my first as a television critic (the sole survivor from that batch appears to be CBS’s “NCIS: Los Angeles”), which may explain why I’ve always had a soft spot for it, even in its redundant years.

In one of the last scenes in Wednesday’s finale, Claire asks Phil what they’ll do now that their kids are all gone.

“What people have always done,” Phil replies. “Leave the porch light on — they come back.”

The same is true in TV, of course, where every show eventually finds a way to reunite, revive, reboot. Is it ever really goodbye anymore?