There’s no half-hour on network television more consistently accomplished than MODERN FAMILY. The show may not reach for the demented highs of a Community (at least, you know, the old Community), 30 Rock or Happy Endings–it traffics instead in a heightened but very relatable emotional reality, and does so, virtually every week, with near-perfect pitch and a spectacularly well-honed ensemble cast.
Tonight’s season finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Abraham Higginbotham and directed by series co-creator/Executive Producer Steve Levitan, was Modern Family at its best. The plotlines, for the most part, were simple and believable: Cam and Mitchell (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) find out that the baby they’re adopting is about to be born, and they rush to the hospital, taking Gloria (Sofia Vergara) with them because the birth family speaks Spanish; that leaves Jay and Manny (Ed O’Neill and Rico Rodriguez) to take care of Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), who has a dance recital that night. Meanwhile, Claire and Phil (Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell) send Alex (Ariel Winter) off to the prom, while Haley (Sarah Hyland), rejected by colleges, tries to get her life together, with a job and the return of boyfriend Dylan (Reid Ewing).
Any of those stories could feel generic in another TV comedy, but what makes Modern Family special and remarkable is the graceful way it mixes its various tones, from physical comedy to believably deep feeling. The show has a way of taking even obvious gags and underplaying them so they feel fresh–what could be more predictible than the bit tonight when dopey Dylan, told by Haley’s brother Luke (Nolan Gould) to shut the door so Luke could reveal a secret in privacy, obliviously closed the door to the closet? But the joke was played naturalistically instead of as a “gag,” and that earned it an even bigger laugh. When Modern Family does stage a big-scale routine, like tonight when Cam and Mitchell found themselves in the middle of a full-fledged telenovela (in Spanish, no less), the joke sneaks over you instead of pounding for attention. That allows the series to hit genuine emotional notes, like the episode’s final scene between Cam and Mitchell, or the way Jay dealt with Lily’s refusal to dance at the recital. Even the finale’s last-minute surprise twist (which neatly set up next season) didn’t feel like a gimmick, because the show hadn’t spent half an hour pointing fingers at what was coming.
As good as the writing is on Modern Family–and it’s reliably superb–the cast fully lives up to it. Characters that could so easily be cartoonish–Sofia Vergara’s, Julie Bowen’s and Eric Stonestreet’s, especially–are played with so much grounded commitment that they’re completely believable as human beings, and the writers can put any subgroup of the cast together in a given storyline with complete confidence that they’ll play against each other beautifully.
Modern Family, of course, is a smash hit, and the usual vagaries of contract renegotiations aside, there’s no reason to think it won’t be a staple of the broadcast line-up for many seasons to come. It isn’t the most exciting comedy on television, or the most daring. It’s just the one that never lets you down.