Warning: This story contains plot details from Wednesday night’s episode of Modern Family, titled “Good Grief.”
Wednesday’s episode of Modern Family, titled “Good Grief,” took the ABC family comedy’s near-annual Halloween episode and turned it on its side (respectfully) by turning a holiday celebrating death into, well, a day to mourn the death of a (mostly) loved one. Turns out, the “significant character” that would meet his/her maker was feisty DeDe (Shelley Long), ex-wife of Jay (Ed O’Neill), and mother of Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). (Those of you who had fearfully forecasted gloom for the Prichett’s French bulldog, Stella, can breathe easier.)
Introduced in season 1, DeDe appeared in seven episodes, most recently popping up last season. The tragic news was revealed in the episode’s first minute — giving new meaning to the term “cold open” — as Claire received a grim phone call from DeDe’s husband, Jerry. As we soon learned, she had a heart problem that she didn’t want to talk about, survived an impossible chain of events during her women’s group trip to Greenland (saved by wolves, swallowed by whale) only to die peacefully in her sleep whilst clutching 10 pages of suggestions for the hotel staff. And as viewers were reminded throughout this episode, DeDe was a difficult force to be reckoned with. She told Gloria (Sofia Vergara) at her wedding that she’d come back to haunt her. (Which Gloria believed she was doing via those seeing-all mini-statues that she’d given the family for Christmas.) She threatened to murder Cam (Eric Stonestreet) if he ever hurt Mitch. Oh, and she didn’t want to pay for young Claire’s voice lessons in case she ended up with her father’s nose. She was also praised, however, for being a unique and independent spirit (she’d bring her own ice cubes to restaurants, was thrown out of Scientology, etc.), for gently helping Mitch come to terms with his sexuality, and for comforting Phil (Ty Burrell) after he dropped off a child at school for the first time.
While her spirit figuratively and somewhat literally permeated the episode, DeDe herself did not appear in this installment, though we did hear Claire listening to DeDe’s last voicemail after their contentious final conversation. (DeDe apologized earnestly…before slipping in a quick insult about Claire’s hair.) “Good Grief” revolved around different family members, still costumed, analyzing their relationship with her. Claire, hard to hug with her eight spider arms, struggled with Mitch to accept the loss; she didn’t just feel guilt over that final fight, but that throughout their relationship, “I was as mean to Mom as she was to me.” Both siblings ultimately came to terms with the idea that parents might be closer to certain kids, but it didn’t mean that they loved the other ones any less. (Cut to: Claire, slightly objecting to the notion vis a vis Jay and Mitch.)
Meanwhile, Luke (Nolan Gould) turned to humor, Hayley (Sarah Hyland) turned to food (while her mind grew sharper), and Alex (Ariel Winter) found herself a little turned on by tragedy. As for whether that old stone would crack, Jay spent most of the episode sublimating his grief and obsessively searching for a missing sandwich, finally opening up to his kids about how DeDe would seek out a special crunchy-crusted bread to make his sandwiches. When he drove by the bakery and discovered that it wasn’t there anymore, he was depressed for a week. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until it was gone,” he said poignantly. The episode, which effectively walked the line of humor and heartache, wrapped with Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) confessing to the camera that she was the one who ate Jay’s sandwich — and planted the dolls that were haunting Gloria, ending “Grief” on a, well, good note.
Why was DeDe the one marked for death? Will she return in flashbacks or just in doll form? How did the Halloween episode turn into a farewell episode? Put down that edible arrangement, raise a pint of West Hollywood ice cream and say, “To DeDe!” while we get Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan on the line to give us the goods on “Good Grief.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did DeDe wind up marked for death? Were you looking to use someone who was, shall we say, difficult, which would make for a more interesting, fraught exploration? Like, it wasn’t just the size of the loss, but it was the complication of it?
STEVE LEVITAN: We’re just trying to, at this point, put our characters through something new and interesting and challenging for us, so I think you’re right. That is one of the things that make this complicated and interesting. Whenever people have any kind of a complicated relationship with somebody, and then they die, it brings up a lot of things. So when we were talking at the beginning of the season about some different places to go, this idea came up, and we liked it. There will be, in fact, another episode that will deal with ramifications of this.
When you were looking for new challenges and experiences for the characters, did you come up with the idea of death and immediately settle on DeDe? Or did you go through a couple of candidates on your hit list?
This seemed like the logical choice because it so directly affects three of our main characters. It was also just a very nice send-off to the character and to Shelley Long, so it seemed like the thing to do. The idea, though, for setting it on Halloween came about because, well, I’ve always had a love for people going through something that is unexpectedly serious while in a silly costume. I’ve always just loved that sort of thing. We always do Halloween shows, and they’re a big part of this year’s series, so we thought, “Well, let’s try to do something that’s wildly different this Halloween.” And since it is, strangely enough, a holiday that deals with so many themes of death and things that are scary and all that, it seemed in a strange way appropriate.
That was my next question. Did it feel like an intriguing challenge to find the emotional weight of the situation? Because there is something inherently absurd about people grieving in costume.
That sort of thing happens. You go out, you’re dressed as a pirate, and then something serious happens, and suddenly, you’re forced to go into active mode or grief mode or whatever while you’re dressed ridiculously. It’s just one other interesting element to this story. I enjoy the challenge of this episode because it’s obviously something that’s very serious, but it’s not our way to do a very special episode of Modern Family. We want it to be funny. We want it to be enjoyable for people — and heartfelt for people, as well — so that was part of the challenge of getting the tone just right.
On the flip side, was there any concern from the network or anywhere that a full-on death episode would feel too maudlin for this kind of comedy?
No. I think if anything, they were our own concerns, but we felt that we were up to the challenge. Phil’s mom died several seasons ago, and I did that episode as well. The story was about something serious and what that person was going through was serious. But there’s still times to laugh during this, and there’s still ways that people who are not directly involved get into something else. There’s a way to keep the story, on the whole, entertaining, while still dealing with a serious issue. Also, I lost my mom very suddenly two years ago. I remember when it happened to me, we got the call, and it was very shocking, and we just started gathering at my sister’s house, and everyone just started showing up. So I tried to help bring a lot of what I felt was the real of that night, for me, to Dunphy Halloween.
What did Shelley say when you told her that the Grim Reaper was coming?
I didn’t have the conversation with her. Our casting director, Jeff Greenberg, did — because he’s got a long history [with her]. He worked on Cheers. I think she was okay with it, certainly — we’re near the end our run anyway. She cooperated, of course. It was very nice go in and do that little 3-D scan for the DeDe doll and she did the voicemail. So that was nice.
Was there ever any talk of shooting some sort of flashbacks with her, or having her a little more involved?
Yeah, that did come up, and I think we maybe even had it in for a very short period of time in our story breaking process. But ultimately, it just seemed…not necessary. We can stay pure to: let’s just play that evening almost in real time, just people dealing with their initial reaction, and the aftermath of the reaction.
Is it possible that we’d see DeDe again in some sort of flashbacks later?
Sure. I think anything’s possible. It’s nothing we’ve planned on doing, but you never know. They could uncover an old video tape. Or it could literally just be a flashback, but it’s not our intention at this point.
What is the impact of her death on the family? Will we see the family dealing with it in the next episode?
It’s not the next episode, it’ll be two or three or so later. It just deals with what she left for each person, and how that affects them.
Is there a cryptic hint you can drop about what she might leave?
One of the things that comes their way is a tree that contains DeDe’s ashes. Her ashes have been placed and infused with the root ball of the tree. [Laughs.] So now, this tree will contain bits of DeDe, and she just left it for Mitchell and Claire and said, “You two decide who wants it.”
When it was revealed that a “significant character” would die, what was the reaction you got that amused you, whether it was from some of the guest cast — like a Nathan Lane or Fred Willard calling you and asking, “Is it me?” — or one of the regular cast members?
I was, frankly, a little bit afraid that we, in a weird way, overpromised. That people were thinking it’s one of our main main regulars, and we would hear some occasional weird theories on that. I guess I think we were all a little bit shocked at how much we’ve been asked in real life, “Who is it?” It really took us by surprise…. Maybe [viewers will] be pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t one of our regular people, but I hope we don’t disappoint, as strange as that sounds, or that they were gearing up for more and say, “Oh, is that all?” But it’s significant to us. She’s a very significant character in so many of our characters’ lives that it’s still meaningful.
You also don’t want your audience to have bloodlust and to want to see one of your characters die.
No! I mean, I think many people might be very relieved based on some theories I’ve heard. I remember reading one person online saying, “I turn to Modern Family because it makes me happy, and I can’t believe you’re doing this. If you do something terrible, I’m never going to watch again!” [Laughs] Hopefully that viewer will be okay.
A lot of people were theorizing — and were worried — that the character was going to be Stella. Are you willing to go on the record and ensure Stella’s safety from here on out?
As a very solid dog lover — and I’m sitting here in my office with my dog snoozing on my couch right across from me — we have, at this point, no intention of killing off Stella. [Laughs.] She’s very low maintenance. We like her.
You mentioned that the show was nearing its end. But last month, Chris [Lloyd, the show’s co-creator] said that there is a possibility for an eleventh season. How likely is it that there will be another season?
I think it’s starting to look more likely. Everything is moving very slow because of Disney’s acquisition of Fox. So there’s some talks going on right now. There are many people excited about it continuing on, and we’ll just have to see what happens. I will say when I floated the notion of 10 years, I had every intention of that being the truth, but I’m rolling with an ever-changing situation.
Are you saying that you’d like to see another season or you could go either way?
All I care about, frankly, is that we end strong. That’s it. If that’s 10 seasons, or that’s 11 seasons, that’s okay. I want to make sure that we really have some things to say and we’re not just sort of running on fumes at the end. My biggest priority is: If we go forward, do we have something left to say, do we have things left to explore with these characters? And so far, every year we manage to find something, so I have no reason to think that we won’t. And I think there’ll be some developments that will change the dynamics a little bit if we do go forward. If we do go forward, it’ll have to be everybody looking each other in the eye and saying, “Okay, we’ve got another good season in us — not just another season.”
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