In Defense of Modern Family’s Writers

When the actors of ABC's most successful series in years were forced to file a lawsuit, the minds behind the dialogue took an entire episode to make their points known.

On 24 July 2012, the adult cast members of the ABC hit television series Modern Family sued 20th Century Fox in an attempt to re-negotiate their contracts. With the exception of Ed O’Neill, each cast member was receiving about $65,000 per episode before the filing. Yet as they were gearing up for a fourth season, each actor felt he or she was entitled to a bigger piece of the pie. 

How so? Well, in the previous year alone, the series generated a whopping $164 million in advertising revenue, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The deals under which each actor was working at the time were deals made before the series was a hit, and as it just so happened, they were also good through seven seasons. Considering how lucrative the comedy had become (it also sured up a deal with USA after its first season for a license fee of nearly $1.5 million an episode to take it into syndication), Ty Burrell, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara felt they deserved a raise. And while $60 grand might be a lot of money to you or me, they were, by most logical comprehension anyway, correct in feeling that way. 

So, they took ’em to court. And it worked: Based on an alleged (we don’t want to get sued ourselves now, do we?) violation of state law that stated personal services contracts couldn’t last longer than seven years, their previous deals were void and each adult cast member’s paycheck per episode was upped to somewhere between $170,000 and $175,000, bonuses included. Part of the new deal was to sign on for an eighth season, however, and should the series make it that far, the plaintiffs are set to take home somewhere in the neighborhood of $350,000 an episode. 

You could thank the lawyers for this, but I’m not convinced there wasn’t at least one other, more subliminal reason it all worked out in the end. It’s a reason not meant to be noticed. It’s a reason hard to decipher at a mere first glance. It’s a reason I’ve seen occur in countless other TV shows, all the way from The Wire to the American version of The Office. And it’s a reason, I should also note, that could be complete and utter bullshit due to my consistently conspiratorial outlook on not only the universe, but more specifically, the entertainment industry. 

That reason? Modern Family‘s writers. 

Or, more accurately, Elaine Ko, Jeffrey Richman and Bill Wrubel — the minds behind “Tableau Vivant”, the second-to-last episode of the series’ third season. Its original air date was 16 May 2012, a little more than two months before the actors went ahead and resorted to suing 20th Century Fox Television and subsequently winning, from a legal standpoint at least, the right to re-negotiate their deals. It was their final chance to make their case through the television screen that year (you never want to mess with a season finalé, remember), and it was, at the risk of parsing my words too lightly, completely fucking brilliant. 

Indulge me here, if you will. For as long as I’ve consumed television, I’ve slanted my perception toward that of whomever is behind what’s actually being said on screen. I look for hidden meanings. I convince myself I’m connecting dots that only those who are privy to the inner workings of said TV series might know. A sort of wink-and-nod between creators, directors, writers and actors. We spectators see it as simple acting, plot points that move the narrative forward in an interesting way. But for those who know what goes on behind the scenes — they can pinpoint what certain dialogue is intended to mean within their tiny community of collaborators.

Arrested Development immortalized this practice. The most obvious incident came during its third season (ironic, no?), in an episode named “S.O.B.s”. Knowing that the series was about to get the boot from FOX, the episode featured verbal exchanges regarding a potential move to another network (something a ton of people speculated about in real life once they realized FOX was jumping ship).

Michael Bluth, painting as obvious a picture as possible, at one point notes how the Home Builder’s Organization (HBO) wouldn’t want to deal with the family at this point. George then eventually chimes in by saying, “Well I think it’s Showtime,” which no doubt was a clear reference to speculation that the series might indeed land on that particular network once FOX was done with it. The HBO citation, meanwhile, was in part due to the fact that the Sopranos network, it was said, would never consider touching an already-canceled series. 

It’s a tiny moment, yes, and it’s absolutely meaningless, of course. But, hey: I get a kick out of it.

Anyway, back to Modern Family. “Tableau Vivant” opens as Phil, the aloof, lovable dorky dad of the operation, is fretting late at night over having to fire Mitchell, his brother-in-law, from doing some legal work for his real estate agency. The whole thing begins as he says to himself, “I love you very much, but …”, essentially providing a proper introduction for what’s about to happen. Phil’s wife Claire enters the room, reminding her husband about how her brother’s job at the company was supposed to last only until the summer anyway, and his business should just wait out the duration of her brother’s contract instead of letting him go now.

And this is where the fun begins. “He handed in a couple contracts late,” Phil responds. “He has a reputation for being lazy, but I didn’t want to say anything because he’s practically doing this for free.”

Sound familiar? Mitch’s job in this episode was supposed to only last until summer, when Modern Family breaks between seasons. In real life, one side was (theoretically) addressing contract issues lazily and apprehension was felt about actually discussing the issue because one side was “practically doing the work for free.” Am I making something out of nothing or is this a viable observation?

The scene then switches to the episode’s B-plot: Alex, the Dunphys’ middle child, is worried about an upcoming art project during which she has to stage a famous painting with real people. It’s one of the few classes in which she doesn’t perform particularly well, so she obsesses over landing a good grade. It sounds innocent at first, but check this out:

“I have one last chance to impress him,” she says of her teacher, which may or may not be a nod toward the series looking to impress its producers. She then holds up a painting before explaining what she chose to re-create, adding, “I chose this one, and I’m using my own family.”

Got that? Now have a look at this sentence, taken directly from the show’s Wikipedia page: “Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan conceived the series while sharing stories of their own modern families.”


Jump to the narrative’s C-story. Luke and Manny, the youngest boys of the bunch, wrestle with morality over the fact that Luke is scheduled to receive a medal for putting out a fire at school. Manny, the pragmatic Larry to Luke’s Balki, is the only one to see that Luke actually started the fire, and he goes on to spend the duration of the episode attempting to teach him a lesson about what’s right and what’s wrong. 

Never mind the clear “even though you helped get this show off the ground, you probably don’t deserve the bulk of the credit (read: money) that you’re getting, 20th Century Fox” undertone this plot addresses. Instead, I’ll opt for Luke’s revelation that “maybe I should be a professional medal-getter when I grow up,” a possible nod toward the awards Modern Family receives each year. 

And we can’t forget the D-line, either. Jay and Gloria, sitting in a restaurant where a sandwich named after the former exists, has this exchange:

“Give the menu a good, thorough reading,” Jay says to his wife. “You didn’t even look at it.” 

Translation: Contract. Proposal. Read it and don’t blow it off.

“Most people stop after salt and bacon,” he continues while reflecting on the sandwich made in his honor, “but I doubled down with anchovies.”

Translation: The cast was actually looking for $200,000 an episode, even though the studio offered a base of $150,000. It’s not quite “doubling down,” per se. But you get it. 

Better yet in this sequence is when a waitress notes how Jay is stressed about an upcoming audit, which may or may not be in reference to the studio going through its current slate of shows at the end of the spring season, and picking which ones deserve what. “It’s three bad days and it’s over,” he responds. 

How many days was it between when the suit was filed and when a settlement was reached? 

That’s right: Three days. 

I could go and on and on and on like this (seriously; I have four pages of notes on the first 15 minutes alone), but I’ll refrain from boring you with details. Details such as Claire’s response to Lily as she keeps turning on and off the lights in her house: “It doesn’t seem that she is redirecting her own energy as much as using a lot of ours.” (Oh, point Modern Family writers!).

Details such as Cam and Claire disputing the importance of the word “no”. (Obvious).

Details such as Mitchell misguidedly bragging that “The more I do, they more they want me. I even turned in a few assignments late so they could fall out of love with me.” (Everyone loves Modern Family). 

Details such as Phil explaining how he hates confrontation and once ended up dancing around actually breaking up with a girl so much that he never went through with it, only for us to learn that the girl in question is his current wife. (The actors didn’t want to be confrontational in their approach to a new contract). 

Details such as Manny telling Luke he “knows he’s going to do the right thing” (take note, studio), or Jay telling Gloria “it’s about being respectful of what a person’s feeling,” which ultimately leads to him complaining that Gloria can be “too loud” (the same criticism the actors may have received as they made a fuss about their salaries in the press). 

And then, most curious of all, details such as the bickering family that’s supposed to be posing for a live-action painting to help Alex get her good grade. As the mumbling barbs take flight in each character’s direction around that dinner table — right before everyone puts on a fake mad-smile to take a picture — it’s the most brilliant way to depict what was going on behind the scenes at that moment. A family, still bound to one another through one way or another, having to continuously put on a smile, no matter how much they might have hated each other at that particular moment. 

My point is this: It’s got to be so damn hard to write a television show in the first place. But to do it while soaked in double, triple, even quadruple entendres — and to do it successfully, mind you — is a gift far too often ignored by the general populous, if only because we rarely even know who these people are.

Outside of the rare Louis C.K. or even someone like Mindy Kaling, who both write and act on their own series, we are almost never given an opportunity to truly celebrate the minds behind the words that are uttered during a lot of the stuff we enjoy consuming on the small screen. It’s not a thankless task, per see — more often than not, it seems, a lot of writers would prefer to be as far away from the camera as possible — but it’s one that too easily gets overlooked in all the hoopla surrounding really great and really interesting television programming.

So, kudos to you, Elaine Ko, Jeffrey Richman and Bill Wrubel, for sticking up for your actors. And actually, kudos to all the Modern Family writers who work to put out the most universally adored sitcom on cable television today. Because without you, Burrell probably wouldn’t be landing lead roles in Muppets movies. Without you, Vergara probably wouldn’t be the ginormous sex symbol she continues to be today. Without you, Ferguson’s best-known role might have been as a dentist on Ugly Betty. And most importantly, without you, the actors with whom you work probably wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on when it came to negotiating contracts that would inevitably change the course of their professional lives forever. 

Now, whether that solidarity was actually on display during the penultimate episode of Modern Family‘s third season — or, say, I’m just a nuts-o, simply trying to connect dots that maybe aren’t even there in the first place — well, I guess we’ll never know for sure. Either way, though, it sure does make the exercise of sitting down with a few DVDs of television shows a hell of a lot more fun to do. 

As long as the rewind button works. And as long as a show’s writers know how to use it. I think they deserve a raise.