Hyland and Steve Levitan also look ahead to season 11

By Dan Snierson
May 08, 2019 at 09:39 PM EDT
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ABC’s venerable comedy Modern Family closed out its 10th but not final season with an episode that you’ve been waiting for almost all season: the one in which Haley gives birth to twins. And while Wednesday night’s “A Year of Birthdays” delivered on that promise —  twice, technically — it did so in a rather unconventional way, building the episode around a year of birthdays for all the Dunphys-Pritchetts-Tuckers, and ending not only on the 51st birthday of Phil (Ty Burrell), but the actual day of birth for Haley’s twins.

The episode opened on his big 5-0, with Phil pledging to learn something new and scary. A year later and much later in the episode, there he was, about to hit the stage at a children’s piano recital, getting bullied by a fellow student for his advanced age. And then… it happened: Haley (Sarah Hyland) was overwhelmed by her contractions and made a dash for the hospital. Phil quickly followed, but before exiting the building, he did manage to perform the world’s fastest rendition of “Für Elise” and take a parting shot at the mean kid by quipping, “Say hi to your mom for me.”

Kelsey McNeal/ABC

There would be no obstacles to the obstetrician — not even a “push! push!” moment with Haley and new husband/old boyfriend Dylan (Reid Ewing) — just a newly crowned mother resting happily in her hospital bed. As the family gathered in the hospital room, Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), in matching orange robes, made the grand introduction, parading around the baby boy and girl a la Simba’s “Circle of Life” scene from The Lion King, bringing things full circle back to Modern Family’s pilot episode, when Cam presented baby Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) in similar fashion.

Hyland was pleased to see the series aim to subvert expectations of the milestone moment with a time-hopping episode. “I don’t think it’s been done in that way leading up to such a momentous occasion,” she tells EW. “That was a really cool way of executing it, especially ending it with such a big thing.” Co-creator Steven Levitan, who wrote and directed the episode, says that the idea for an episode built around everyone’s birthdays had been in development for a while, unrelated to Haley’s birth-of-twins story. As he began brainstorming the birth plot, “I was very concerned about all the tropes involved in a birth episode,” he tells EW. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, a birthday is the day someone’s born, too. Wouldn’t that be cool to integrate that into this?’”

Possibly so. But first he had to solve the creative challenge of covering double-digit birthday flashbacks in 30 minutes. “How do you make them each different and lively?” he says. “How do you not make it just feel like a bunch of sketches? How do they flow from one to another?” Then he had to sell this fusion of ideas to his writing staff, who had what he calls a “valid concern” about tucking such a pivotal moment into just the end of the show. But when the writers started to explore ways to tackle the baby-is-born episode — hardly new territory in sitcom land — “everything had been done that we could think of: the mad dash to the hospital, the going into labor,” he says. “At the end of the day, this just felt fresher to [us], to really put it in the context of everybody’s birthday. “I liked that it’s just the pure moment of you get to it — you’re not living in that for a long time of someone’s in pain and they’re stuck in an elevator or car.”

Ending the episode on that circle-of-life, pilot-mirroring moment radiates so much closure, it almost feels like it could have wrapped up the entire series, not only the season. (And this 10th season almost served as the show’s last, before all parties agreed to an 11th and final season.) Hyland says that she and her costars were buzzing about that series-finale vibe in the scene. “Going into season 10, I was told beforehand that Haley was going to be pregnant, and this is also when season 10 was going to be our last season,” she adds. “I thought that this season or series would end exactly like this season did, which was having the babies, having a circle-of-life moment. I definitely was like, ‘That would be a really beautiful, full 360 to pay homage to the pilot, wrap it all up with everybody being together and having this new modern family.’ But now we have another [season] after it, so we’ll see how they actually decide to end it. We have amazing writers, so I know they’re going to end it perfectly and top this season finale, but… I can’t imagine anything better than this.”

Kelsey McNeal/ABC

Back in the fall, when it still was unclear if season 10 would be the last, the writers planned for the birth episode to serve as the season finale that could double as series finale. “For a while there we were like, ‘Well, if that’s involved in our [series] finale, that will be great,” he says. “And if it turns out that we go another year, then we’ll come up with something else.” And while he notes that he would not have anchored a series finale to this year-of-birthdays story that preceded the birth — “we’re going to probably want to attack that in a much different way” — he acknowledges the sense of completion provided by Haley’s hospital ending. “It does have that feel,” he says. “And believe me, that occurred to me several times. Like, ‘Wow, this ending would’ve made a good [final moment].’”

The circle-of-life moment arose early in the brainstorming process as a neat, sweet callback to the pilot. “When we decided on twins, that made it even better because now Mitchell was involved in it, so we liked all that,” says Levitan. “We had some different variations of this ending, and what we liked about it was that as with Lily, this was the first time many members of the family ever see the baby when these babies are presented in this way.”

Filming the scene was, in a word, quiet. Given that the babies used in the scene were only a few days old, Levitan arranged as calming an environment as possible. “Everybody was really nervous, to tell you the truth, because we needed them to be not crying and we wanted them to be comfortable,” he says. “We really warned everybody, ‘Okay, while these babies are on the set, there will be no talking. I don’t want to hear a word from anybody.’”

Several of those warm family interactions that viewers see in the wake of the Simba moment were actually in-the-moment suggestions from Levitan and cast improvisations. “There were a few lines that were scripted, but then we would shout out — well, not shout — but whisper, ‘Hey, say this,’ and, ‘Do this,’” he says. “And they really felt like a family in that moment. That was, in a weird way, the more emotional moment, just watching these people have this very life-changing moment together. It was very, very touching…. There’s a moment when Mitchell says to Alex, ‘You’re next,’ and Claire [Julie Bowen] gives him the look. I think we came up with that on the fly. Even the moment of Claire, in a weird way, finally kissing Dylan. And Dylan getting a little bit emotional, which he was. Those were all just kind of sweet little moments that happened there.”

While Hyland knew that the cast would be doing some bedside improv “because that’s how we did in the pilot, with baby Lily passed around,” don’t ask her to recall any ad libs. “I wasn’t really paying attention to anything but those goddamn babies,” she says. “They’re the cutest thing in the entire world and my ovaries were exploding and I was just freaking out about that. I was just like, ‘Give me the babies.’ If somebody else had the babies I wasn’t paying attention to what they were doing with the babies. I was just like, ‘When is someone going to hand me the babies now?’”

Hyland was handed a lot of plot twists this season. Not only did she learn that Haley would marry Dylan — “I definitely thought she was going to be ending up with Andy,” she says of Adam Devine’s character. “People yell at me on social media for ending up with Dylan because they want Haley and Andy to be together so bad” — she found out that she would be the mother of not just one, but two children. When Hyland was told about the twins, it looked like the show might end after season 10, and “I definitely was like, ‘Well, thank God we’re not doing season 11!'” she quips. “All joking aside, I thought it was really cool. It’s a showbiz thing to say, ‘Never work with kids and animals.’ When you’re at this stage of the baby, you have to think of babies crying and all of that. So then you have two and you’re like, ‘Okay, now we’re going to have four babies on set.’ [Two babies are used to play one on screen because of their limited availability and general fussiness, so two onscreen babies requires, well, you can do the math.] I was just really thinking of the technical aspect of it, especially when we found out we were going to be doing season 11. Thank God I’m at an age in my life where I have friends that have babies, and I at least know how to hold them and I’m good with kids. I’m grateful that I have experience with friends’ children.”

Now that delivery day has arrived, what kind of mother will Haley prove to be? “She’s going to be very strong-minded, and Haley strikes me as a very practical person, like the way that she parented Lily when Lily was having her first period,” says Levitan. “Haley might kind of just say it like it is, and I think she and Dylan will have very different styles. And at the same time, like a lot of new mothers especially with twins and especially if you have a busy job with a demanding boss, she will get overwhelmed quite a bit. But at the end of the day, I think she will be a fierce and ferocious protector of her kids.”

“There will definitely be a learning curve,” says Hyland. “I think Claire is terrified for Haley because she was her. But I think she forgets how well she actually handles things.” And she’s curious to see how Haley and Dylan handle the challenges of new parenthood, a subject that has been tackled by the show previously, but from a different vantage point. “The funny will come in with her not knowing what to do and Dylan knowing what to do, or maybe both of them not knowing what to do,” she continues. “I mean, that’s the fun of having new parents that are young. [With] Mitch and Cam in season 1 or in earlier seasons, we got to see the experience of being a new parent in general — and, of course, a different perspective of being two fathers. But we have never done the young parent. We’ve had Phil and Claire talk about it, but you’ve never seen it. So that will be a really interesting aspect because she is 25 years old, which is a completely normal time to have a baby; in some states that’s old and in other states that’s a fetus. I think it will be really fun to have these two people that have, for the most part, always been focused on number one, and have to learn how to put their wants aside and focus on the needs of their children.”

Phil and Claire will also be there to provide relief, in the form of babysitting and comic. Levitan says that when season 11 begins, Haley and Dylan will continue to live at the Dunphy house, which will turn into a nexus of chaos. “The way that we have it designed is that it really affects the entire Dunphy household on a regular basis,” says Levitan. “We gave them twins because they’re going to need more help, and it gives Phil and Claire and the rest of the family something to really be engaged with.”

Meanwhile, Haley will return to her job at lifestyle brand Nerp. “There might be some interesting things that happen with her job, so some of the stuff falls on Phil and Claire a bit,” he says. “We didn’t want to give them a baby and off they go into their own little household. We want them to be even more dependent on the family for a while, until they get on their feet.” Hyland is looking forward to the workplace plot. “I love that Haley is on a journey of motherhood, but I have always wanted them to go deeper into her work and career life,” she says. “I think it’s really important for young women to see.”

Here’s one other thing that Levitan will reveal about the final season: It will likely be shorter, at least slightly. Although ABC hasn’t confirmed this, Levitan says that he and co-creator Christopher Lloyd are planning to do 18 episodes, which would be four fewer than recent seasons — and would end Modern Family at exactly 250 episodes. “That’s a nice round number,” he quips. ABC hasn’t confirmed an episode total yet, and Levitan does note that the conversations are ongoing: “[I]f it makes sense creatively to do more, we’re possibly open to that.” (As for the possibility of a spin-off, he demurs. “We’re not thinking about that right now,” Levitan says. “Some people have expressed interest in it, but we have by no means had any real formal talks about it or brainstorming sessions about it.)

In case you’re wondering, the decision to do one more season was extremely close. “I honestly thought season 10 would be our last, but as we got into it, we realized there’s still some new territory to explore,” he previously told EW. “Also, if I’m being really honest, our cast and crew really is like a family, and I think we just weren’t quite ready to say goodbye.”

Speaking of goodbye, the writers will start to flesh out the farewell episode when they reconvene next month to begin work on season 11. “We all have some ideas,” says Levitan. “It’s certainly something we’ve been thinking about for a long time, and we know we want to finish strong. Like most finales of long-running series, there will be an enormous amount of time and thought put into it.”

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