Quirky 'Modern Family' has the right formula

Rick Bentley
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — ABC took a major gamble in September when it opted to launch four new half-hour comedies as a two-hour package on Wednesday nights.

All of the networks have had trouble launching even one new comedy over the past decade, and those that survived often got their starts behind an established comedy, where they got spillover viewers.

ABC's bold plan — introducing "Hank," "The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" — has generally worked. Other than "Hank," a stinker that died quickly, the other shows have found audiences.

"Modern Family" — about a quirk-filled, multi-generational family — is the biggest new comedy of the year and found success without having that lead-in support from an established hit show. It has averaged about 10 million viewers each week, making it consistently a Top 25 show.

Even some of the cast members are befuddled by the show's popularity.

Ed O'Neill, who plays family patriarch Jay Pritchett, had success on another quirky family show — "Married With Children." Yet he doesn't know why "Modern Family" has become so popular so fast.

"I'm really amazed by the show. It's confusing to me. I'm not used to this sort of comedy. I'm not sure how it's working. I just know it is," O'Neill says during an interview on the set.

The show uses similar storytelling techniques to "The Office," where a fake film crew documents the antics of the various twisted limbs on the family tree. It's fast-paced as the show bounds from sit-down interviews to voyeuristic moments.

The story centers on O'Neill's character, who married a hot, younger woman (Sofia Vergara) with an offbeat son (Rico Rodriguez) at a time when he should be enjoying life as a grandfather. His children have their own foibles. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are first-time parents of an adopted baby from Vietnam. Daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) must deal with a host of wife and mom problems, including a husband (Ty Burrell) who thinks he is the hippest dad on the planet.

Sarah Hyland, who plays hormone-charged teen Haley, suggests the show has attracted such a large following because viewers see similarities between characters on the show and their own relatives.

"There's either that flamboyant uncle or that weird dad or the hot family member who everyone wants to be with but no one can. It's just a somewhat exaggerated version of everyone's lives," Hyland says.

Bowen says it's less complicated.

"We are not curing cancer here," Bowen says. "We're just talking about ordinary things in a funny way."

A lot of the ordinary things in the scripts come directly from the cast.

Bowen talks about how her husband once wired their entire house for cameras and ended up leaving holes in the walls. She got to watch her TV husband make the same mess.

Vergara offers the best explanation for why "Modern Family" has succeeded when so many other new comedies have failed.

"It's a perfect storm. It's a combination of things like the writers, the actors and the characters," she says. "And, we are having so much fun on the set that I think you can see that."

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