Modern Family co-creator breaks down the emotional series finale
"A good ending actually needs to be a good beginning," says Christopher Lloyd.
Family time is over. The family lives on.
Modern Family ended its 11-season, 250-episode, Emmy-encrusted, genre-redefining run with a sweet-hearted farewell that crammed a few needed last laughs into the final hugs. (Sometimes literally. Phil, leaving the group hug and then weepily returning to it, reporting back, "It was awful!") And goodbyes abounded in the episode, most of them premature: Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) had to redo their grand exit several times as they received successive text alerts that their plane was being delayed for all kinds of Missouri reasons. (“Flood warnings this time,” explained Mitchell. “And a swarm of locusts has been spotted in the flight path. What part of the Old Testament are we moving to?”)
The two-part finale dared to break up the family triumvirate while remaining hopeful by illuminating new beginnings (and still lighting the way back home). Mitchell and Cameron gave up the dream home they just moved into and ultimately relocated to the Midwest with daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and their just-adopted son Rexford, after Cam received an offer from University of Northern Central Missouri to replace the just-announced new head coach of the football team. After RV dwellers Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen) demanded that one of their three kids move out of the house to restore normalcy, all three wound up flying the chaotic coop. Alex (Ariel Winter) headed off to Switzerland to work on an academic research project, Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Dylan (Reid Ewing) stepped out on their own with their twin babies, renting Mitchell and Cam’s old place, and Luke (Nolan Gould) revealed that he actually had been admitted to the University of Oregon. Nascent empty nesters Phil and Claire then decided to finally embark on that RV trip across the country that Phil was perhaps slightly more excited about than his wife.
And over in house No. 3, having secretly learned Spanish, Jay (Ed O’Neill) surprised Gloria (Sofia Vergara) by telling her that he would join her on her summer trip home to South America with their son, Joe (Jeremy Maguire). And a freshly bathed (and handcuffed) Manny (Rico Rodriguez) was set to embark on a yearlong trip around the globe.
“Life is full of change — some big, some small. I learned a long time ago you can fight it or you can try to make the best of it,” summed up Jay in the final voice-over, as viewers saw a succession of page-turns into next chapters. “And that’s all a lot easier if you’ve got people who love you helping you face whatever life throws at you. At least, that’s what helps me sleep at night.” As the lights in the three houses were extinguished, the Dunphy porch light illuminated, reminding viewers of Phil’s reassurance to a bereft Claire: “Leave a porch light on. They come back.”
What was it like to plot — and film — that final farewell? Which characters’ future adventures most intrigued the writers? And, well, are they coming back? Let’s pull out our earbuds, cue up "Hungry Like The Wolf," convert all our money to Dave and Buster’s gift cards, hop aboard Hamtrak, let the gummies kick in, and call up Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd, who offers insights into… the End.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Walk us through the process of how the writers [led by Lloyd and co-creator Steven Levitan] crafted this goodbye with new beginnings. How long have you had this particular ending in mind — and were there different versions you considered?
CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: The idea of having people moving on to new paths, we probably started to like that maybe two-thirds of the way through the season. While that would be bittersweet because we'd be kind of breaking up with a family unit — a unit that America has enjoyed seeing together and the characters have enjoyed being a part of — it seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, it's always been by my principle on this that a good ending actually needs to be a good beginning. So if we just left everybody in place, it's so hard to just either tell one funny episode that sums things up or one moment for everybody. You almost want to set people on new paths. It feels a little bit uplifting in a way, and it also enables the series to live on in viewers’ heads a little bit better, because they get to imagine what Mitch and Cam in the Midwest might be like. Or Alex living in Europe, or Haley and Dylan moving into Mitch and Cam’s house, or Luke off in college in Oregon, or Manny taking an around-the-world cruise, or Phil and Gloria working together.
We embraced that idea of putting people on new paths that are exciting for the audience to imagine, but also necessitates a big goodbye from everyone. And that will add a bittersweet quality to the end, but feels fitting because families do morph. It’s the type of change a lot of people feel in their own families, and we wanted to capture that. So we latched onto that idea — it must have been in the last month or six weeks of the series because we had to build certain things to it. It was Cam getting this job offer and Alex getting a job offer of her own, et cetera, et cetera.
As far as the moment of the porch light, [we were] looking for something hopeful to cut the sadness of the heavy, tearful goodbye. That's also true to life, that families disperse, but they come back together at various times. And so we wanted an image that said, “Yes, in many ways, this extended family will never be the same. They won't be living around each other. They won't be in each other's lives to the extent that they have been for the last 11 years. But they'll come back, and they will have little encore moments of what we've seen in the future.” And it's a hopeful thing for Phil and Claire. And for the kids to know they're always welcome at home. Everyone's always welcome at the Dunphys'. It seemed a hopeful final image.
You set all these characters on courses for new beginnings. Which one did you discuss most in the writers’ room and almost lament, “Oh, it would have been fun to have just a few more episodes to explore that idea”?
Well, probably Mitch and Cam in the Midwest. I mean, it's really the inverse of our series. It's suddenly Mitchell around Cam's family when it had been Cam around Mitch’s family for a long time. Mitchell as the fish out of water as the big-city guy in the country world. We actually have some jokes about that in the last couple of episodes; that seemed a fun thing to explore. But really all of them. Following Alex to Switzerland doesn’t promise as much, but certainly further adventures of Haley and Dylan and their twins with some of the ghosts in Mitch and Cam's house seems fun.
And the RV trip!
Look, Claire and Phil going across the country in an RV is good [laughs] — we could probably do four episodes on that alone. But again, because those things seemed exciting for the writers to explore in our heads, the hope is that the audience will have that same experience, that they’ll come away wondering about that: “Oh, I can just picture Phil doing this or Cam and Mitch doing that.” And that's what makes the series live on.
Which character’s story was hardest to tie up and took the longest time to crack?
With Jay and Gloria, would they move to Colombia? Would Jay make some more formal decision about ending any career work and devoting himself to becoming a full-time dad to Joe? We talked about sending Alex off into more of a full-blown relationship as her new journey, but it didn't seem entirely true to Alex. She seems a little bit more driven, career-wise. So there's just a little bit of a hint of a possibility of romance for her, but more a career path.
Trust me, there was plenty of debate about all of these things. There are characters who are left behind, but we wanted to find ways to change their lives a little bit. So we have Claire in this exciting new job that seems well-suited to someone who is a little bit of a control freak, that she runs a container company. But it's hers, and hers without being in the shadow of her dad, so that seemed fitting for her. Phil hasn't changed that much. He's still a realtor. He's still teaching. And Phil, in many ways, winds up kind of in a sadder place than some of them because he thrives on family, particularly his kids and being the cheerleader, the jester, and he's got sort of a smaller audience. But he's also happy to see where his kids are going. And he seems like somebody that will adapt, and he'll be the happiest one when everybody comes home for Thanksgiving.
Ty mentioned that it was hard to get through filming the finale, as everyone’s emotions were maxing out. He said that real emotions and staged emotions were all jumbled up on camera. Were there takes that you had to discard because it just got too emotional? Which scene contains the most blurring of that?
It's not often that you have actors delivering lines to other actors that are exactly aligned with what they're feeling themselves as people. When we have characters saying goodbye to one another, as well as to this unit, you have the human beings knowing that they are also saying goodbye to that actor that they’ve stood across from every day and this wonderful unit that they had been a part of for 11 years. So it naturally brought up a ton of emotion. The main examples of that would be in the scene where Phil and Claire have a little encapsulation of their lives. They're standing an empty room that Haley and Alex had shared, and they have a last look, and it's really dawning on them that this is an empty room and an empty house. And that definitely got to those actors.
But, of course, the biggest one was at the end, the big group hug and people saying, “I don't want to let go.” And [Gloria saying,] “Why is it so hard for us?” [and Jay answering,] “Because most people don't get what we've gotten.” These are scripted lines, but they absolutely express what everybody was feeling — not just the actors, but writers, directors, people on set, all observing this and feeling the same thing. So in answer to your first question, yeah, there was a take where the emotion just sprung out of everyone in kind of an overwrought way. [Laughs] And it was absolutely genuine to the people who happen to be actors playing these roles, but it seemed a little too much. Just too much spilled out. So we asked them to do it one more time, and there was nearly a mutiny because it was difficult to do these things, to keep their emotions at bay, and in that case they'd kind of failed. So everybody calmed down and they agreed to try it one more time. And it was the last take that we wound up using, which is a little bit more measured. But nobody blamed them. I mean, it is very difficult to say goodbye to many, many of your best friends all at once [laughs], especially with a camera in your face.
Did the writers actually write a note from Gloria to Manny, where he said, “I’m the lucky one,” or Cam’s acrostic poem for Gloria?
No, we didn't. [Laughs] We probably could have enjoyed doing Cam's version, using the letters of her name. In the shooting of it, I probably put a couple of ideas in Rico's head to [elicit] a reaction, but he didn't need much. I mean, his mother is saying, “I'm going to miss you so much, but I want this adventure for you,” was probably a lot of what Rico was feeling saying goodbye to Sofia.
Jay and Phil share a fun, final awkward bonding moment when Phil misinterprets Jay and tries to spoon him. Ty said that it was the perfect ending because those were some of his and Ed’s favorite scenes to do, and once again, they broke while shooting it. Who breaks first in the these scenes?
It’s usually Ty.
That’s what I figured.
No lack of professionalism. He's brilliant, but just the absurdity of the situation gets to Ty, especially with Jay being this fulminating, angry, slightly scary presence in Phil's life. And to see the way Ed reacts to those situations is usually what makes Ty laugh. It was reminiscent of an episode we did early on where Jay is having trouble with his back in Hawaii and he's in a hammock, and Phil attempts to help him out of the hammock but gets pulled down on top of Jay and Jay says, “Don't move! My back is seizing up! Don't move!” And Phil's holding himself up, kind of like a lizard, to keep their faces as far from one another as possible, although his arms start to weaken and he slowly descends closer and closer toward Jay, till they're almost nose to nose. And that was one that they laughed — Ty leading the way — but they laughed 15 times. It took an hour to shoot that scene. So this one was reminiscent of that.
How much of more of the skating sequence did Jesse and Julie learn?
They didn't do too much. When we first published the final episode [script] and sent it to the actors, Julie sent me in a note that said, “Three things: So sad it’s the last one. So sad for the porch light. And skating?????” With about five question marks afterwards. [Laughs] So we knew not to go too crazy with what we would ask our actors to do on skates. We had ideas of a more elaborate, ridiculous, slightly over-sexualized routine that they might've worked out when they were, like, 10 and 8. But it also ultimately became a less-is-more kind of situation, with just a little bit of an approximation of it. I think it's the right amount. They probably would have been game to do more, but you know, it's also dangerous.
Part 1 of the finale had a few guest stars, including Elizabeth Banks, and in part 2, you focused on your core cast. You’ve had an incredible roster of guest stars and Elizabeth is a fan favorite, but how did you land on her?
There are a lot of guest stars in part 1 — obviously, a lot of Mitch and Cam’s gay coterie, and we wanted to give as many of those people a bow as we could. In fact, we've done that through the season, bringing back Stephen Merchant, bringing back Josh Gad. But for the very last one, we really wanted it to be just our group, to give everybody a chance to have proper scenes that can breathe and proper time allotted to these emotional goodbyes.
As far as Sal, we just always loved that character. We would've used her more, but she's a busy woman between her acting and her directing. She's phenomenally talented and hilarious, and certainly one of my favorite of our guest actors. So we had tried to slot her into episodes at various times in the season and couldn't quite figure them out. And then she had this little window of opportunity to come do a short scene for that episode. We were very grateful she was available because it would not have seemed right to not give her a curtain call.
The Office broke the fourth wall at the end of its run. Was there ever any talk of showing the documentary crew — or what became of that footage — or did you just feel that you had moved past that idea?
We didn’t. Look, it’s a valid idea. Obviously, we started out in our pilot having that person be a character. And then the more we thought about, we thought, “That might take the audience out of it.” And then having lived in a mockumentary form without literally a crew for 250 episodes, it felt like it might've been to meta or too cute to maybe do that for us. Because I think The Office made you aware that they were actual people much more than we did. We were just using it as a technique more than a sort of an actual reality.
The light on the porch at the end gave off an optimistic, we’ll-meet-again glow. And as Phil says to Claire about their kids, “They come back.” How much hope did you want to leave people with that the Dunphy-Pritchett-Tuckers will meet up again one day on our screens, through spin-off or reunion? What was the intention?
The intention of that image was more to make people imagine that the family will reunite. That's a lovely thing people have in their lives when they move on, that there’s a home base, and that you can come back to that base. To even just know that that light is on can do wonders for you wherever you are in the world. So it was a hopeful image both for Phil and Claire to know that their kids are going to come back and everybody's going to come back at some point. But it's also a nice thing for those people to tuck in their back pocket as they head off on their new adventures.
Now, was the intention to promise that we would literally see these characters again? Not necessarily, no. It was much more that these characters will live on in our audience's mind. And I think the audience probably will think a little bit about, “Oh, they probably are going to be around a table at Thanksgiving or Christmas or for family weddings and whatnot,” and the porch light reinforces that. But it was not meant to say, “We will absolutely see this family constituted again.” Does that mean we won't? It doesn't mean that. It’s possible. But if it doesn't happen, it seemed like a nice little uplifting image for the end.
If a next chapter does come to fruition, in what form do you picture it?
You know, it's weird. Had coronavirus come a month earlier, we wouldn't have even gotten to the end. And it's entirely possible right now we would be saying, “Well, let's just go another season. We didn't even get to tell our end.” The networks didn't do any development; they would love another season of the show. [Laughs] We could very well be in videoconferencing, figuring out a season 12 of Modern Family. Obviously that's not going to happen. So we have had very preliminary conversations about spinning off some characters. That could be a year from now, we catch up with one or two or three people and then other characters from the show perhaps drop in. I mean, that was what we did on Frasier when he left Cheers and started his own series. We saw some of the old people pop by, and that was really fun for us as well as for the fans.
It could be something like that. But I don't want to suggest that that's a real thing, because it isn't yet. It's a thing we knock around. I think that probably seems a little more viable than an hour reunion special. I'm personally happy with where we left the characters and they move on in the imaginations of our viewers. And in some ways that's better than just doing an actual, literal update on where everyone is in their lives a year from now.” It might be better to leave it in the audience's imagination.
When the TV history books are written, what do you think Modern Family's place will be? There was the incredible Emmy streak [a record-tying five consecutive Outstanding Comedy Series trophies], not to mention, the mainstream visibility that the show gave to a gay couple whose primary focus was about becoming fathers. And it helped to move the needle on gay marriage.
I don't think it would be fair for me to decide what the legacy of the show is. That's for others to say. I can certainly say, I'm very proud that we maybe even inadvertently have done a nice thing for the LGBTQ community. When we designed Mitch and Cam, they were meant to be in many ways the most traditional of our couples, just two people whose lives were built around this little girl. It wasn't about their being gay. But when we moved to a gay wedding episode and it kind of helped to normalize things, it was a lovely thing to hear from people. All the time we would hear fans say, “You made it easier for me to discuss my sexual orientation with my family." And if we made anybody’s life easier in any way, it was great. Mostly we were just trying to be funny or give people something to watch together on a Wednesday night.
When people talk about and revisit Modern Family in the years to come, what do you hope they’ll say?
I hope that they say, “Oh, that was a really well-made show. There was care in the writing of it. There was incredible professionalism and talent in the cast, and what it all added up to was a really rich experience of great laughs. I loved spending time with those characters, but also I found myself moved at the end, and that's like a full meal.” I hope that people who watched it as kids or teens will introduce their own kids to it, or they may just in adulthood watch episodes again and have a slightly new perspective. Maybe they get some jokes they didn't get before or be moved by it in a different way. But the hope is that people remember it as a fuller experience than you sometimes get with a comedy and come back to it for the nourishment that comes from that.
Parents just don’t understand… and neither do kids or spouses in this hit ensemble comedy