For the creators of Modern Family, goodbye is the hardest thing to say

Few moments in the decade-long history of Modern Family are as memorable as one of its earliest: son-in-law Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) presenting the newly adopted baby Lily to the extended Pritchett-Dunphy family to the musical strains of the Nants Ingonyama, better known as The Circle of Life from The Lion King.

That scene, a de facto baptism of the show’s eventual success, exploded a myth that multi-ethnic and sexually diverse television audiences want to watch stale, inauthentic caricatures in sitcoms. In stark contrast, Modern Family gave us what it said on the label: a blended family that included gay son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), no-nonsense Latina stepmother Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez).

The way we were … the cast of Modern Family.Credit:20th Century Fox

“Having [Mitchell and Cameron] be an integrated part of the family and not leading with the fact that they’re gay, meeting them when they’re at this moment in time when they’re bringing home a child and becoming new parents for the first time, it’s something that’s incredibly relatable to so many people, gay and straight and non-binary,” Ferguson says. “I think it was revolutionary back then and I don’t think it’s as revolutionary now, which I think is a great thing.”

The sentiment is shared by the show’s executive producer and co-creator Steve Levitan who, with co-creator Chris Lloyd, felt initially that their choice, while right, was also incredibly risky. “We knew right away we were going to have to have a gay couple adopting a baby and as soon as we landed on that and locked it in, I remember saying to Chris, well, there goes Middle America. We got zero blowback.”

More than a decade later, the series is now in its final season, and meeting the cast makes for an emotional encounter. There is a sense that after close to 250 half-hour episodes, they are collectively ready to move on to something else. But there is also a deep sense that this particular cast, unusually close in a town that does not always foster such friendship, is struggling to find the words and a way to say goodbye.

The success of Modern Family, rare in a business where successful shows seem plentiful in the so-called “golden age” of TV, was the result of an inexplicable set of circumstances, Levitan says. “It’s a rare thing, the old cliche of lightning in a bottle, but it just so rarely happens that the right characters are created and the right actors come along to play those characters and then the right writers come along to help bring those characters to life and further deepen those relationships,” he says.

Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson).Credit:20th Century Fox

When the show premiered on September 23, 2009, to a US audience of 12.6 million viewers, “the time was right,” Levitan adds. “There’s something that occurs to me, [that] it’s probably not a coincidence that Modern Family was largely a show which mostly existed during a time where things felt a little bit happier in the world. And I think that it just was all these different elements came together, and that’s a rare thing.”

His greatest fear, when the show was launching, was simply that it would not work. “That for whatever reason, while we thought this was so funny, that the world wouldn’t think it was so funny,” Levitan says. “You just don’t know because part of the thing when creating a show is, in order to survive that horrific process, you have to fall in love with whatever it is you are doing. I remember saying, I think this is pretty good. But you don't know.”

In the decade since, the audience has shared the family’s major milestones: Claire (Julie Bowen) and Phil’s (Ty Burrell) kids Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould), and their cousin Manny, graduating high school, Mitch and Cam getting married, Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria having their own child, Joe (Jeremy Maguire), and Haley and Dylan (Reid Ewing) marrying and having twins.

Phil (Ty Burrell), Claire (Julie Bowen) and kids Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould).Credit:20th Century Fox

Despite the age of the show, Ferguson believes the show’s pilot still sits very centrally in the shared memory of the cast. “While it’s hard to remember what happened 11 years ago, I will always remember meeting this group of people for the first time,” Ferguson says.

“We all auditioned at separate times, and we were put together in separate rooms throughout the city but the first time we all came together for a table read in preparation for the big network table-read for the pilot, it was like an immediate connection,” he says. “It all felt very natural very early on. I just remember thinking, like, even if the show isn’t a success and even if audiences don’t respond to it, I can really stand behind what we’re creating right now because it feels so special and so unique.”

On the set itself, there is a very specific tone set by the presence of the show’s on and off-screen patriarch, actor Ed O’Neill. “I think Ed is the perfect No. 1 on a call sheet,” says Stonestreet. “There’s a behind-the-scenes sort of hierarchy, which is the call sheet, and whoever is at the very top of that call sheet is a de facto leader.

“Ed is who you want to be at the top of that call sheet because there is no drama with Ed,” Stonestreet adds. “Ed is just low maintenance, no drama. He comes to work. He’s prepared. As you know, he’s just one of the most brilliant comedic actors that ever lived. He makes it all look so easy, and he wants you to keep on task and keep it moving.”

Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofía Vergara) with son Joe (Jeremy Maguire).Credit:20th Century Fox

Levitan says the shape and flavour of the show’s conclusion was ultimately determined by the final season itself. “Had we ended last season [the show’s 10th] I think then it would have probably revolved around the birth of the new babies, but since we went past that point, we were in uncharted territory,” he says. “It’s something we talked about all the time, the potential places that we could end it so that we can build some things in that would lead to that nicely.”

Reflecting on the show’s 11 seasons, Levitan says it was evident at every moment that the show was special. “It’s a cliche that you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone, and that is absolutely not the case here,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times we were on set doing something, a great scene or on our great first season, we went to Hawaii, and we went to all these great places. We would stop and look at each other and say, how lucky are we?”

“Even our worst days were the kind of best days you wish for,” Levitan says. “And we knew it at the time. There was never a moment when anybody on this cast said, I’m going to leave for better things. So many of our original writers are still there, because we all know how lucky we’ve been from day one. So many of us have been just trying to hang on to it and embrace this experience while an experience like this can still exist.”

Modern Family is on Seven, Thursday, 9pm, and 7Plus. The finale airs in the United States on April 8.

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