Modern Family’s Final Episode: A Media Milestone Deserving of Christian Attention and Analysis

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
April 8, 2020

Tonight marks a major media milestone that certainly deserves very close Christian attention: After eleven years and 250 episodes, the ABC sitcom Modern Family will air its very last episode.

Why does this event deserve our attention? Because Modern Family has both revealed and driven changes in what many Americans now know as the “modern” family.

Bill Keveney, media reporter for USA Today, cited Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, the co-creators of the series, who stated that they intended Modern Family to reflect, “the changing make-up of families and the relationships they enjoyed.” Levitan and Lloyd have a long career together. Levitan said, “Once we came up with this notion of how families have changed, that brought us right to a gay couple. I was interested in telling a story that felt like my family, the way lives are changing with technology and social media. We got very lucky in casting some excellent actors and we were fortunate to bring on a lot of very senior writers after the 2008 writers’ strike.”

The article also cited Ed O’Neil, the actor who plays the character Jay, who said, “Like every hit show, I always think it has to be the timing—what the country wants to see at a certain time.”

This article aptly represents the relationship between Hollywood and America—it is a two-way relationship with each feeding off of the other. Yet, it is Hollywood that produces the messaging and advertising, not the viewers. Ed O’Neil suggested that the success of Modern Family had to do with timing. The show, which began in 2009, entered a context where it wasn’t at all clear that Modern Family was a storyline that Americans wanted to see. The year 2009 was still four years before the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision striking down a federal ban on same-sex marriage, not to mention the Obergefell decision that came in 2015, fully legalizing same-sex marriage six years after the show began. Moreover, when the gay couple in Modern Family—Cam and Mitchell—appeared on the show, the vast majority of Americans indicated in poll after poll that homosexual relationships were not morally commensurate with heterosexual relationships, and that same-sex marriage should not be legalized or normalized.

All of that changed dramatically and at a dizzying pace.

Within less than a decade, the polling data shifted from a majority believing that same-sex marriage should not be legalized to almost the same exact percentage of the population now saying that homosexual marriage should be legal. How could that happen? How could such a moral transformation take place in such a short amount of time? How could something as fundamental as the family and marriage, which was upheld for millennia as an institution between one man and one woman, deteriorate in the matter of a decade?

You cannot turn to a program like Modern Family and blame that series—taken by itself—with the moral transformation in America. That being said, it probably did have more impact than we might think.

In my book We Cannot Be Silent, published in 2017, I cited another USA Today article by Marco de la Cava, which he wrote just days after the 2013 Windsor decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The headline of the article was, “Hollywood: Gay Marriage’s Best Man.” Various other news outlets ran articles with similar headlines, all with the same general idea—Hollywood deserved credit as being the impetus that lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage. De la Cava wrote, “The nation’s pop culture machine has for decades now chipped away at a once taboo topic so as to render it utterly familiar. Whether it’s the antics of tow gay men in the hit ABC comedy Modern Family or the brazen but heartfelt sexuality on display in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, same-sex unions seem, at least on screen and on stage, to be an entrenched part of our federal union.”

That is an astounding statement. Given today’s context of the series finale of Modern Family, it is important for Christians to think carefully about the influence of Hollywood on the culture and its ability to effect moral change.

Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter who won an Oscar for the film Milk—a movie that chronicled the live of San Francisco gay rights advocate Harvey Milk—claimed that he and the rest of Hollywood bore the responsibility as the world’s storytellers. Indeed, he said, “Storytelling is the only way to dispel myths. Hollywood has had a rather important role in that. We are the world’s storytellers.” That is a very powerful role that society has handed to Hollywood. Make no mistake, Hollywood wields that power to intentionally peddle its own moral agenda.

That article published in 2013 testified to Hollywood’s attempt to not only boast about its power and influence, but to demonstrate that influence concretely through programs like Modern Family. Indeed, the very name of the program “Modern Family,” sends a moral message—the family is now something different than it was in the past, namely, the normalcy of a same-sex couple with an adopted child.

The same-sex couple in Modern Family was not merely presented as a same-sex couple, but a positive, winsome, fun-to-watch pair on television. The acting was good and the writing excellent. The storyline was compelling. They were an interesting duo to watch. That, as it turns out, is all part of the plan—a plan to normalize and legitimize same-sex marriage nationwide.

Steven Levitan, the co-creator of the program, said, “We’ve heard from many gay people and families of gay people that watching Modern Family has opened the door to those conversations and made parents more accepting of their gay children. Making Mitch and Cam’s trials so normal helps change minds and hearts.” That was the goal of the program and it succeeded. It certainly had some role in transforming the moral barometer of the nation towards same-sex marriage.

One of the most interesting things to consider about the program which comes to an end tonight is that the early controversy about the show revolved around the two men who were in a same-sex relationship. What makes the controversy interesting is that the LGBTQ community levied the critiques against the show, accusing the program of a type of homophobia, which made the gay couple appear too traditionalist—that Cam and Mitchell were not gay enough.

In 2011, another article appeared in The New York Times by Bruce Feiler with the headline, “What Modern Family says about modern families.” Feiler asked the question, “From the beginning, the creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd conceived their show around a newfangled family tree. Jay Pritchett, the patriarch, his Colombian trophy wife Gloria, and their son Manny; Jay’s grown son Mitchell, his partner Cam and their adopted Vietnamese daughter; Jay’s high-strung daughter Claire, her goofball husband Phil and their three suburban children.”

What also made the show novel, according to Feiler, was the immersion of the characters in technology. Indeed, the characters often had an iPhone or iPad in hand. They were entertained in new ways quite unlike previous generations of Americans that gathered around a television set communally. Feiler wrote, “The characters in Modern Family are so immersed in technology that nearly every scene is refracted through a digital funhouse, an iPad screen, a cell phone camera, a baby monitor, a YouTube video. Characters spent half their time glancing past one another rather than communicating directly.” That was intended to be both humorous and ironic—as it turns out, it was incredibly predictive and even prophetic.

The end of Modern Family, moreover, represents the end of an entire industry, namely, the broadcast sitcom. Much of the audience no longer watches broadcast television. Indeed, when Modern Family emerged so popularly, it in many ways rescued ABC from its doldrums. It then led to spinoffs and further energy for ABC as it became a massive moneymaker. The end of Modern Family, however, brings that entire industry to an end—the industry of big-budget ensemble sitcoms as a broadcast entity.

Modern Family also broke the “fourth wall.” It was one of the first program in which the actors routinely turned to the audience and referred to the audience. This is important for worldview analysis because breaking the fourth wall meant that actors broke the proscenium and spoke to the audience directly—the audience, therefore, became part of the story. Early in the 20th century, this became an innovation during the dramatic presentation of Peter Pan, where Pan turned to the audience at one point and asked them to applaud if they wanted to save Tinkerbell. That act drew the audience into the narrative, moving them away from being merely spectators to participants in the narrative.

For Modern Family, it had the effect of saying, “This show is not just about our families—it is also about your family.” Indeed, Modern Family utilized this tactic in every episode, which was an attempt to elicit intimacy between the audience and the cast members.

That being said, Modern Family comes to an end tonight because, quite simply, they ran out of a storyline. No family, real or invented—not even three families put together as an extended family—is this interesting to watch all the time from the outside. The hilarity of parental irritations lessens over time and the kids, who have grown up, aren’t that cute anymore.

God, however, intended family life to be lived from the inside, not the outside. The strength of the family does not depend upon moments of exhilarating drama. The God-given gift of the family is expressed through the covenantal bond shared between a husband and wife who, by God’s grace, become father and mother. The awesome power of that family is understood from the inside-out, not the outside-in. The beauty of that family is an unconditional commitment of love, not just when the storyline is interesting, but especially when it’s not.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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