‘Modern Family’s’ finest: The 10 best episodes of a sitcom classic
Before the multigenerational TV comedy ends on Wednesday, here’s a look back at some great moments from the Pritchetts and Dunphys.
When ABC started airing promos for the new sitcom “Modern Family” in 2009, my initial reaction was: meh.
From the borderline corny title to the seemingly contrived setup to the “mockumentary” conceit already honed to perfection by “The Office,” everything about the show seemed … unexceptional. Even the cast seemed underwhelming. I’d enjoyed Julie Bowen’s work in movies such as “Happy Gilmore” and on the TV show “Ed,” but I wasn’t encouraged by the casting of Ed O’Neill in a lead role, as “Married … With Children” was near the bottom of my list of the most inexplicably popular sitcoms of all time. As for the likes of Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, I was vaguely familiar with their work at best.
No reason to get excited.
About a year after “Modern Family” premiered, I was at a friend’s house for a holiday party. After nearly everyone had gone home and it was just three or four buddies having a nightcap, my pal suggested we watch his Tivo recording of what he called the funniest show on TV.
Sure, why not. He cued up “Come Fly With Me,” the third episode of the first season, which featured plot lines about the snobby Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) learning the joys of shopping at Costco; Gloria (Sofia Vergara) taking Alex (Ariel Winter) to find a fancy dress, and Phil (Ty Burrell) getting bonked in the nose by the remote-control airplane piloted by his father-in-law Jay (Ed O’Neill). That last bit of physical business was flat-out hilarious. The writing was sharp, the performances were universally stellar, and there was genuine heart intertwined in the classic sitcom setups.
I was hooked.
Over the last decade, “Modern Family” was a consistently entertaining and endearing staple, earning 82 Emmy nominations and 22 wins, rejuvenating the network sitcom, producing solid ratings, turning Sofia Vergara into a breakout star and boosting the careers of Burrell, Stonestreet, et al.
I became such a fan of the show I arranged for an on-set visit in 2015, where I had the privilege of sitting in on a full cast table read and a day’s worth of filming on Stage 5 of the Fox Studios lot, a cavernous building that has housed everything from scenes from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “L.A. Law.” The Dunphys’ living room, Lily’s bedroom, Alex’s dorm room, the Pritchett’s entranceway, Mitchell and Cam’s living room — all connected on one stage. It was such a treat to see this talented group working out the mechanics of the scenes, enjoying each other’s company, clicking on all cylinders.
After 11 memorable seasons, “Modern Family” bids farewell on Wednesday with an hourlong retrospective at 7 p.m followed by the series finale at 8. Here’s my list of the 10 best episodes of one of the 10 best sitcoms of all time.
10. “Connection Lost” – Season 6, Episode 16
The entire episode is seen through Claire’s laptop as she FaceTimes and texts her family while waiting for a connecting flight at O’Hare Airport. Loved Cameron asking Claire, “Did you get me Garrett’s cheese and caramel [popcorn] yet?”
9. “Caught in the Act” – Season 2, Episode 13
The Dunphy children (played by Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter and Nolan Gould) have some of their finest and funniest moments in this episode, in which they surprise their parents with an anniversary breakfast — and walk in on them in the midst of a passionate moment. They flee the house in horror and vent to one another about their parents, before eventually acknowledging how lucky they are to be in such a loving home.
8. “Halloween” – Season 2, Episode 6
Perhaps no other sitcom in history could match “Modern Family” when it comes to comedic “callbacks” and running themes, including the Dunphy family’s annual tradition of going really BIG on Halloween. (It’s Claire’s favorite holiday. Claire had a wonderful dark side.) In this episode, everything goes wrong until the moment when the Dunphy clan rallies in typical fashion to save the day.
7. “Schooled” – Season 4, Episode 2
One of the great things about “Modern Family” was its willingness to embrace liberal tolerance while mocking liberal stereotypes, e.g., Cameron and Mitchell feuding with their so-called natural rivals, a lesbian couple (Wendi McLendon-Covey as Pam and Michaela Watkins as Susan). When the four are essentially forced into socializing, Cam says, “We’ll host, obviously. … I assume you have an unfinished woodworking project at your house.” Pam says, “You’ve got a lot of nerve,” but Susan notes, “Yeah and you’ve got half a canoe in our living room.”
6. “The Wedding, Parts 1 and 2” – Season 5, Episodes 23/ 24
Like virtually all long-running sitcoms, “Modern Family” embraced “event episode” staples from graduations to birthdays to holidays to weddings — but they always did it with razor-sharp humor and great heart. The two-part season finale centered around the wedding of Cameron and Mitchell was also a prime example of “Modern Family” having one of the all-time best recurring guest casts, including Fred Willard as Phil’s dad; Shelley Long as Jay’s ex and the mother of Claire and Mitchell; Chazz Palminteri as Jay’s longtime friend Shorty; and in this episode, Elizabeth Banks as Cam and Mitch’s life-of-the-party friend Sal, and Nathan Lane as the immortal Pepper Saltzman.
5. “Punkin Chunkin” – Season 3, Episode 9
By this point, we had come to know and love the personalities and tendencies of all the main characters — and “Punkin Chunkin” is a perfectly executed set piece playing up the differences between the doubters (Jay, Claire and Mitchell) and their dreamer counterparts (Gloria, Phil and Cameron), and how all three couples are the better for embracing those differences.
4. “Las Vegas” – Season 5, Episode 18
The comedic choreography is a wonder to behold as the adults spend an eventful weekend in Vegas, with all their wishes and needs satisfied by the ubiquitous concierge Higgins (Stephen Merchant). What could have been a gimmicky travel advertisement episode was mined for pure comedy gold.
3. “The Prescott” – Season 11, Episode 10
Like a veteran championship team making one last great run, the ensemble cast knocks it out of the park in another classic set piece, this time at the impossibly swank luxury building where Alex has taken up residence. In a fantastically sly callback, Stephen Merchant returns as Higgins the do-everything concierge — but everyone has either forgotten him or can’t quite place where they know him from.
2. “Arrested” – Season 4, Episode 7
Sarah Hyland never got the awards-season due she deserved for turning what could have been a clichéd character into a funny, goofy, deceptively smart and eminently likable young woman. “Arrested” is a showcase for Hyland’s Haley in all her hot-mess wonderfulness.
1.“A Year of Birthdays” --- Season 10, Episode 22
Nearly every season finale of “Modern Family” was a heartrending touchstone about the circle of life as celebrated in communal extended family rituals. The Season 10 closer was the best of all, as the clan celebrated the arrival of Haley and Dylan’s twins and we looked back on all the birthdays they marked that year. Like so many episodes of “Modern Family,” this was a show filled with genuine laughs — and genuinely earned emotions.
As hokey as it sounds, this was a show that really did make us laugh and cry in equal measures.