An Evolution In Storytelling

An Evolution In Storytelling

A look at the creation of the show "Modern Family" and how it revitalized representation of a typical family.

An Evolution In Storytelling

We frequently hear stories about how incredible individuals took a seemingly impossible idea and, through sheer will power and intellect, turned them into successful creations that profoundly impacted society. When Steve Jobs created the original Apple I computer, it resembled an antique assembly board that lacked basic features such as a keyboard and monitor. Now the monolithic multinational corporation has taken the world by storm with its innovative, next-generation telecommunications technology. Google, the omniscient search engine, began with two gentlemen in a garage and a plethora of old computer hard-drives connected together. Kevin Plank, a mediocre player on the University of Maryland Football team, maxed out his credit cards in purchasing clothing supplies, and designed a new type of lightweight sportswear that was resistant to water and insulated body heat. The revolutionary idea later propelled him to found the Under Armour Performance Sports Company. Yet not all successful stories revolve around such intricate complexities; sometimes they can simply originate from a simple, run-of-the-mill activity as a conversation between two friends about their families.

Such an exchange occurred between Christopher Lloyd, renowned screenwriter and producer who had worked on highly acclaimed shows like Fraiser and Golden Girls; and Steve Levitan, another talented screenwriter, director, and producer who achieved notoriety with the successful running of Just Shoot Me (Archive of American Television, 2012). Both of these men teamed up to work on the production of the situation comedy Back to You that aired on the Fox Network. Unfortunately the show only lasted a season before the network executives slotted it for cancellation, leaving both men very bitter and severely disappointed in the experience. Levitan himself stated that “had the show aired through another network such as CBS it would probably still be running today” (UCTV, 2012). However, both men were on a contract to come in frequently and pitch ideas for a potential new comedy, a genre that at the time was suffering from a dry spell in terms of innovation. While they spent numerous hours brainstorming, Lloyd and Levitan found that they frequently discussed matters that were currently going on in their family life: dealing with an unreasonable teacher at school, celebrating the fact that a child scored the winning goal in soccer, recovering from the nightmare of teaching their daughter how to drive, or complaining that the wife would be out of town for the weekend and they were responsible with trying to figure out what to scrounge up for dinner (UCTV, 2012). Soon they realized that these conversations about the craziness of family life would provide the perfect basis for a captivating show that audiences across the nation could easily find relatable. These interchanges were the early stages of conception for the hit television series Modern Family, which exploded onto the scene in 2009.

The plot of the sitcom focuses primarily on three units of the interconnected Pritchett family living in the suburbs of California. You have Jay (Ed O’Neil) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara), who play the old head of the family and his vivacious Columbian trophy wife living in an affluent house with Gloria’s young sensitive son. Next is Jay's son Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), a gay couple with completely polarized character traits who have adopted a Vietnamese baby. Finally we have Jay's eldest daughter Clair (Julie Bowen), and Phil (Ty Burrell) an) – a wannabe cool dad and an overprotective yet witty mother who spend their time looking after their two daughters and one rambunctious son. Levitan reflected that this particular family unit was based largely on his own family; he related strongly to Phil in that he considered himself "the cool parent” and couldn't understand why his two daughters and son would cringe at his jokes (UCTV, 2012). In turn Lloyd stated that Cam’s personality was based entirely on his wife who would listen to everyone’s story and could never say no to anything (Archive of American Television, 2012). By following the lives of these family members and embarking on their various adventures filled with pure mayhem, hilarity, and occasionally heartfelt moments, both of these producers wanted audiences to experience how the dynamics of typical American family structure had changed since the days of Full House (Feiler, Bruce, 2011).

While flushing out this idea, the immediate challenge was that the family-based sitcom was already a fairly large television genre with many noteworthy precedents. Lloyd and Levitan came up with the idea of adapting a single-camera, mockumentary style in order to allow the audience to witness the characters both being interviewed and interacting normally with their family (Raphael, Amy, 2011). Originally both producers had established the character idea of a foreign Dutch student who had lived with the family previously and was filming them for a documentary; however, the added plotline proved too cumbersome, the character was jettisoned in the end, and the question of who is actually filming remained unanswered (Archive of American Television, 2012). Lloyd drew upon these film techniques, specifically the stolen-camera angle, from other celebrated shows like 30 Rock and The Office, both of which had found that this faux documentary style enhanced the satirical elements and core parody of their respective storylines. In the case of Modern Family, Lloyd discovered that it not only gave the actors license to improvise in scenes, but it created the atmosphere in which the audience truly felt they were secretly getting a private glimpse into this family (Archive of American Television, 2012).

Initially Lloyd and Levitan pitched the concept to the ultimate triumvirate of networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC, all three of which showed a high degree of interest. Fox was not included in the pitching process due to prior unfortunate experiences shared by both creators with Back to You (Archive of American Television, 2012). One major issue that Lloyd and Levitan had was how to make a clear pitch of a story that revolved around eleven characters, a huge number for a show of this genre. Levitan decided to develop a keynote presentation where the characters were laid out by family and used images of actors who they initially thought had the right image (UCTV, 2012). CBS had demonstrated a high degree of interest in the film and was avidly looking for a new show to fulfill the family-based comedy venue, but they didn’t possess the experience or necessary resources for the mockumentary design. NBC also liked the concept, but with the success of 30 Rock and other similar shows utilizing the mockumentary technique they felt it would be too repetitive in appearance; in fact, during the time of their pitch to NBC, the production of Parks & Recreation, another mockumentary parody, was already underway. That left ABC, a network owned by Disney, also considered the grandmaster specializing in creating family-oriented entertainment. They also were the most determined and consistent in their offers to pickup the show and test this trending mockumentary style (Canning, Mark, 2010). In fact, when they asked about the types of stories that would be seen in a given episode, Levitan showed the network executives a home video on his laptop of his son dressed in layers of underwear and shirts to protect himself after violating his father’s rule and shooting his sister with a bee-bee gun (UCTV, 2012). This not only completely sold the executives on the idea, but was also featured as a story arc in one of the episodes. When Lloyd and Levitan signed the contract, ABC immediately slotted the show for the Fall 2009-2010 lineup and ordered a whopping 16-episode season for the first run (Fernandez, Maria, 2009).

In an interview Lloyd stated that in terms of production scheduling, a single episode requires 4 to 5 eight hour days of shooting; this efficiency and rapid pace is due largely to the single-camera angle technique (Archive of American Television, 2012). By going for these simplistic shots rather than big picture pans, it added an authentic quality because it realistically portrayed what a documentary crew would be capable of shooting. One issue in production and post has been striking a balance in the frequency of actors breaking the fourth wall. Given that it's a mockumentary, the characters have the liberty of slightly glancing at the camera in order to add to the situational irony; however, if the actors abuse this privilege, a core part of the shows form would be violated where the audience would feel like their secret observance is openly acknowledged, shattering that special voyeuristic atmosphere (Archive of American Television, 2012).

Another challenge had been flushing out and completely mapping out the personalities of each individual character so that they didn’t evolve into a stereotypical caricature. It took a great deal of effort in finding the right formula and mixture of dynamics that would make this family truly stand out to the audience, a process that became slightly alleviated once casting was completed and the actors were established. As Levitan said, “We didn’t stop until you could pick any two of the main characters, put them in a room and understand why they were funny. That way the best jokes wouldn’t stem from clever word play, but from the individual pure nature of these people” (Raphael, Amy, 2010). Also, once Modern Family began gathering critical acclaim, these two creators along with the writing staff felt enormous pressure in trying to find and apply new ideas that would continue to propel the comedic momentum. This can prove particularly constraining in an industry where schedules are worth their weight in gold and time is literally money. However, Levitan found that drawing from the most ordinary occurrences in daily life could lead to the most hilarious outcomes, and Lloyd established a “cards on the table” system with the writers where everybody had to air their embarrassing family laundry in order to map out future ideas (UCTV, 2012).

During the creation of the pilot for Modern Family the creators ran into clashes with the network concerning casting, specifically concerning Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen. They didn't feel the former was the right fit for the part and the latter seemed like a liability considering that at the time, she was 7 months pregnant with twins. After trying to offer other actors auditions but not willing to agree on another alternative, Levitan finally shot a home video of Burrell dancing to High School Musical songs along with his two daughters, which he used to successfully convince the executives to keep him on as Phil Dunphy (UCTV, 2012). As for Julie, Lloyd and Levitan convinced the network not to have her recast. Instead they used every production trick in the book during the pilot and following episodes to hide her pregnancy, from putting kids, towels, or cereal boxes in front of her to wearing clothes that made her figure seem slender on camera (UCTV, 2012). Both of these cases strongly substantiate the truth in J.D. Roth’s claim that, “when people in the industry start telling you that your project is impossible, that it won’t work, then you know you have something truly worthwhile”.

Although it draws a great deal from other renowned comedy sitcom shows such as The Office, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock, both Lloyd and Levitan made Modern Family truly unique in its innate refusal to accept the viewer’s judgments on the lifestyle choices of the characters, whether the choice is to marry a significantly younger woman or to reject middle age and act like a teenager (Raphael, Amy, 2010). A truly telling sign in this push for open-mindedness was the depiction of Cam and Mitchell as one of a trio of ordinary families, rather than an air-brushed, overly fabulous “token gay couple”. Another intriguing aspect was the fluid incorporation of communications technology and portraying how that has shaped the way individuals perceive one another, even family members (Feiler, Bruce, 2011). Lloyd and Levitan often remarked that technology had killed the standard sitcom because no one goes over to someone’s house for daily information (Archive of American Television, 2012). Instead, they adapted to influence of technology and made it a key element behind the action. Also both of the creators wanted to produce a show that truly emphasized the intricate dimensions of parenthood that have changed over the years and what nowadays defines the role of a parent, an investigation truly augmented through the interview style and shaky camera lens (Parker, James, 2011). Given the fact that Modern Family has been the recipient of numerous accolades and a plethora of Emmy Awards, Lloyd and Levitan have proven their risky undertaking truly worthwhile by creating a culturally defining show that humorously depicts what truly constitutes the nature of a typical American family.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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