LOS ANGELES — When the chips are down, you can always count on family.
The past two times that sitcoms were given last rites, it was mom-and-pop operations — “The Cosby Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” — that came to the rescue. This season’s savior: ABC’s “Modern Family,” a single-camera, multi-layered comedy that feels right at home alongside such classics as “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Roseanne.”
OK, Ward never shot his son (and himself) with a BB gun, Carol never suspected that her husband was having an affair with a giant ceramic dog, and Roseanne Conner never suspected that D.J. was downloading porn on the computer. But the Pritchetts, who have endured all those crises, may be the closest thing to a wholesome household that contemporary audiences will embrace.
“I think people were hungry for a good family sitcom, and this one has been updated in a really smart way,” said Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell Pritchett, a self-conscious attorney who’s still not sure his father has accepted Mitchell’s boyfriend and the Vietnamese baby they’ve adopted. After watching past sitcom efforts fail, Ferguson can’t quite believe this one has stuck so quickly. “I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
According to the numbers, Ferguson has little to worry about.
“Modern” premiered to a whopping 12.7 million viewers and has consistently kept at least 10 million a week, an impressive feat considering the Wednesday-night competition has included “American Idol,” the World Series and CBS’ established hit “Criminal Minds.” In comparison, “30 Rock,” TV’s most critically acclaimed sitcom, averages fewer than 7 million a week, while “Two and a Half Men,” TV’s most popular sitcom, attracts more than 15 million.
What’s even more remarkable is that “Modern” has achieved success with no help from an established hit. “Two and Half Men” spent its first few seasons following “Raymond.” In turn, the Charlie Sheen vehicle warmed up audiences for “The Big Bang Theory” until it could stand on its own.
But ABC didn’t have a blockbuster sitcom to play big brother. Instead, it made the bold move of introducing a block of four new sitcoms. This almost unprecedented strategy has paid off. While the network yanked “Hank,” Kelsey Grammer’s halfhearted effort, after just a couple weeks, the rest of the lineup — “The Middle,” “Modern Family” and “Cougar Town” — already has been renewed for second seasons.
“The thing I’m proudest of is that we’ve been self-starters,” said Steven Levitan, co-creator of “Modern.” He last got a taste of success with “Just Shoot Me!”, which debuted after “Frasier” and later followed “Will & Grace.” “We haven’t been handed a single viewer on a silver platter.”
Nobody’s more shocked or pleased than the sitcom’s breakout star, Ed O’Neill. It took years of promotion and patience before his last sitcom, “Married ... With Children,” in which he played Al “hand-down-his-pants” Bundy, became a hit for the fledgling Fox network. O’Neill, who plays the ultra-conservative, ultra-bewildered patriarch of the Pritchetts, remembers doing years of interviews and gladhanding before “Married” attracted a wide audience.
“We were in a shopping mall in Arkansas, plugging the show, when a tornado hit the other end of the mall and we had to go out the other side,” said O’Neill, leaning against the fake kitchen counter of his fake house on the set of the show. “When I went to my hometown, the show had been running for two years and nobody knew about it. All they knew is that I had a beer commercial.”
“Married” is in good company. “Cheers,” “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H,” “Seinfeld” and “All in the Family” all served time in the ratings basement until they became fan favorites.
“We’re a rogue wave,” said O’Neill, who estimates that he’s turned down 50 sitcoms since “Married.”
But ABC’s gamble wasn’t just a crapshoot. The evening builds from G-rated, family-friendly high jinks to more adult fare, starting at 8:30 p.m. with “The Middle,” which deals with an exasperated Midwest mother (Patricia Heaton) who has no time to talk about sex let along have any, followed by “Modern” and capped by “Cougar Town,” a hormone-fueled Courteney Cox vehicle in which the only youngster has already lost his virginity (ABC currently airs reruns at 8 p.m. and has yet to announce what will eventually fill the slot).
“I kind of like the progression,” said “Cougar Town” creator Bill Lawrence. “I can actually let my kids watch ‘The Middle.’ ‘Modern Family’ is a cool transition show that I love and then when my show comes on, I can put them right to bed.”
While all three sitcoms are holding their own, “Modern” has been the most popular every week, both with viewers and critics. It earned a Golden Globes nomination for best comedy and is expected to be a factor at the Emmys. One of the reasons it has stood out is its unabashed willingness to be sappy. While the Pritchetts have their fair share of infighting, most episodes end with a cuddly moment that’s as sweet as the Waltons’ goodnight ritual.
“People are nervous to show sentiment in comedy because it’s the quickest thing to be made fun of,” said Ty Burrell, who plays a father who desperately wants to be perceived as cool by his wife and three children. “I mean, my character could come across as a jerk, but he’s so well intended and his heart is in the right place. For some reason, that’s strangely risky, but it’s paid off.”
No one is more surprised by the show’s heart than Levitan.
“We thought we were very cynical, typical comedy writers, and now we find ourselves really enjoying those moments where the show sort of sneaks up on you and makes you feel something,” said Levitan, while showing off the Vietnamese baby’s nursery, decorated with a mural of her two fathers as floating cherubs. “I think we’re much sappier than we realized we were.”