From Sun Magazine: Behind the scenes with 'Modern Family,' the sitcom's new savior

With director Jason Winer and star Julie Bowen, TV's biggest comedy has a heavy helping of Baltimore DNA

  • A scene from "Modern Family"
A scene from "Modern Family" (ABC Handout )
November 22, 2011|By David Zurawik and Yvonne Villarreal

LOS ANGELES — Jason Winer was directing Julie Bowen on first episode of "Modern Family" when inspiration struck.

"In the initial draft, Julie's character was described as mildly controlling and neurotic," Winer says of the suburban sitcom mom. "But what she didn't have in that draft was this idea that she was formerly a bad girl who had kind of reformed herself."

Winer thought the extra history could add an important dimension to Bowen's Claire Dunphy — and make a difference to the story featuring her teenage daughter, Haley, who just starting dating.

Ultimately, his suggestion led to one of TV's most widely quoted lines in recent years, with Claire saying, "I just don't want my kids to make the same bad mistakes I made. If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half naked, I've done my job."

Now, two years and two straight Emmys as best comedy later, it is hard to imagine "Modern Family" or Claire without that extra edge. But at the time, suggesting to one of your stars that her uptight housewife character should suddenly take on a wild past could have been a big problem — if not for the rapport and trust that the two Baltimore natives share.

"I think the fact that we both come from Baltimore really does have an effect on our relationship and our work in Hollywood today," Winer says. "We go way back, and occasionally we'll even turn on our Baltimore accents for each other. We'll expose a little of our Baltimore twang to make each other laugh."

"We do go full Baltimore on accents some days, and no one can understand us," Bowen affirmed in a radio interview showcasing her best Bawlmer accent. "We can go real deep on the use of the word 'hon.'"

And they're doing it on one of the hottest sets in television — a critical and commercial success that some see as the catalyst for a renaissance in network comedy.

Each week, "Modern Family," a multicultural ensemble sitcom featuring three households of members of the Pritchett clan, is making about 14 million Americans laugh. In only its third season, the series has become such a ratings powerhouse that ABC placed it in head-to-head competition this fall with the most heavily promoted and eagerly anticipated reality TV series of the season in Simon Cowell's "The X Factor." And "Modern Family" blew the new Fox show away opening the year at 14.3 million viewers — up 1.5 million from last season's premiere.

"I'm sure Simon Cowell has a target on my back," says Steven Levitan, who co-created the series with Christopher Lloyd.

That's somewhat milder than the tweet Levitan posted when the premiere-week ratings were released: "It's extremely gratifying that a scripted comedy finally beat an over hyped karaoke contest. Thank you, #Modern Family fans!"

But perhaps the best gauge of the series' status this fall is the shorthand term that has been coined to describe its effect on networks' appetite for sitcoms: "the 'Modern Family' Effect." The "effect" tag is usually reserved in television circles for shows with such ratings clout that they jump-start entire genres or inspire slews of imitators.

That's not to say that the network comedy genre was totally dead when "Modern Family" launched in 2009. CBS sitcoms such as "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" were doing quite well, in fact.

But comedies were mostly in the second tier of Nielsen ratings, with reality fare such as "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" crowding the top-rated show rankings year after year alongside tried and true dramas like "N.C.I.S."

Now, the genre is experiencing a revival, more than at any time since "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" ended their runs in the early '00s — with "Modern Family" leading the charge.

And the "Modern Family" Effect seems to be spreading. The first pickup of the season went to Fox sitcom "New Girl." And other half-hour comedy series — including "New Girl" and fellow rookie "2 Broke Girls" — got off to especially strong starts among adults ages 18 to 49.

Freshman ABC comedies "Suburgatory" and "Last Man Standing" and NBC's "Up All Night" are also looking good in the ratings. Meanwhile, veterans "Two and a Half Men" and "Big Bang Theory" have posted notable audience gains.

"Modern Family's" success might even be reinvigorating the family sitcom, a bedrock TV formula with roots that reach back to the very earliest days of prime-time network TV with "The Goldbergs" in 1949.

This fall there have been reports of several edgy family sitcoms in development — including two for NBC, one created by Ryan Murphy and the other starring Snoop Dogg. Edge is again a good thing in family sitcoms.

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