ABC's long-running, Emmy-winning family comedy signed off with a finale that was equal parts funny and heartfelt.
Modern Family
Credit: Bonnie Osborne/ABC
Mitch and Cam, Modern Family

There’s a good chance that it’s been quite a while since you last watched Modern Family. The ABC comedy mainstay — which wrapped its 11th and final season on Wednesday — is no longer the buzzy, Emmy-rich phenomenon it was five or six years ago. It’s an inevitable part of the TV lifecycle; even the most innovative and original series — and Modern Family was both — are eventually shoved under the radar by the endless churn of the new. But Modern Family never stopped being funny, and the finale was comfortingly consistent with the series as a whole: A snappy, smart, and unabashedly sentimental celebration of the folks we love (and sometimes hate) the most.

In the final two episodes, it was chaos as usual for the Dunphy and Pritchett clans: Just as married dads Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are settling into their new home with their daughter Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and baby son Rexford, Cam unexpectedly gets offered the coaching job at University of North Central Missouri. Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) have taken to living in a motorhome parked in their driveway to escape the pandemonium of their house, which is filled with their boomerang brood: Luke (Nolan Gould), Alex (Ariel Winter), Haley (Sarah Hyland), son-in-law Dylan (Reid Williams), and grandbabies Poppy and George.

Of course, nothing works out the way anyone hopes — Claire and Phil wind up with an empty nest they didn’t actually want, and Mitchell gives up his dream home for a life in the Midwest — but that doesn’t mean nothing works out. In the ever-optimistic world of Modern Family, things fall apart in serendipitous ways, and fans were left with the comforting sense that the 13(!) characters they’ve followed for years would all be okay in the end.

“Mockumentary” was already a well-established craze by the time Modern Family premiered in 2009, but series creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan were the first to apply it to the dusty family-comedy format. It was more than just a hopping-on-the-trendwagon move: The confessional, fly-on-the-wall style proved particularly effective for mining the complexities, the simmering subtext and mismatched memories, of how families really talk to (and about) each other. By the end of Modern Family’s 23-minute pilot, we knew these people: Control freak Claire and her man-child husband, Phil; grumpy old patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill) and his excitable second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara); uptight worrywart Mitchell and his dramatic husband Cam. (The portrayal of Mitch and Cam’s relationship — they loved and annoyed each other as much as any straight TV couple — was, of course, quietly revolutionary.) Somehow, even the kids — ditzy Haley, brainy Alex, dim-bulb Luke, and old soul Manny (Rico Rodriguez) — were entertaining (and TV-cute).

And the show was an instant hit, credited with "saving" the family comedy. Modern Family dominated at the Emmys, tying Frasier for five straight Best Comedy wins. At its peak in season 4, the show pulled in over 14 million viewers a week — but eventually, America turned its attention elsewhere. Still, Modern kept chugging along for seven more seasons, delivering solid — often above-average — laughs. (I've seen all 250 episodes, by the way.) Though it occasionally flirted with sitcomitis (relying a bit too often on guest stars or "the cast wants a vacation" travel episodes), it never fully succumbed. Few long-running comedies can say the same.

In the finale, each of the main characters got their goodbye moment, many of which were rooted in physical comedy, a series staple: Mitchell and Claire forming a human claw machine to retrieve their old ice-skating trophy; Gloria and Manny sharing a heartfelt mother-son moment (before she handcuffs him to the bathtub faucet); Alex and Haley tormenting little brother Luke one last time by making him reprise his childhood role of “Woofy the dog”; Jay revealing to Gloria that he’s finally (finally!) learning Spanish. Cam fans, meanwhile, got to watch him do two of his favorite things: Sing karaoke and share rapid-fire facts about his comedically cornpone hometown (“It’s just a short ride on Hamtrack”).

With 29 Emmy nominations (and six wins) between them, the core Modern Family ensemble has a lot of valuable players, but my MVP will always be Ty Burrell, a master of pratfall and punnery and poignant TV-dad warmth. Part one of the finale gave us Phil frantically trying to eat sizzling bacon from the pan (“OW! Worth it! OW! Worth it!”), a top-five moment of Dunphy buffoonery. Part two brought the tears. “What are we going to do now?” sighs a weepy Claire, surveying her kids’ empty bedroom. “What people always do,” Phil responds. “Leave a porch light on. They come back.”

A little sappy? Maybe. But families bring out extreme emotion — love, anger, shame, happiness, and if we’re lucky, more love. Modern Family turned the maddening reality of domestic life into funny, feel-good TV for over a decade. They deserve a few farewell tears.

Series finale grade: B+

Series grade: A-

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Episode Recaps

Mitch and Cam, Modern Family
Modern Family

Parents just don’t understand… and neither do kids or spouses in this hit ensemble comedy

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