With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.
Before Modern Family debuted on ABC in September of 2009, Variety’s television critic Brian Lowry published a review that called the pilot episode “easily the new season’s best,” while worrying whether the show would find an audience. Lowry wasn’t alone, either in his praise or his concern. Modern Family was 2009’s fall TV darling, exciting critics with the way it updated the conventional family sitcom by following three interconnected Los Angeles households—two of them “non-traditional”—and cleverly using the then-ubiquitous mockumentary format to deliver narrative surprises and emotional kickers. At once sophisticated and unashamedly beholden to slapstick and wordplay gags, Modern Family seemed maybe too good to survive in a TV landscape where quality shows are born endangered.
Skip ahead six years, and even some of those who once pled, “Please give Modern Family a chance” are saying, “Enough already with Modern Family.” That’s what a half-decade of high ratings, Emmy dominance, and massive syndications sales can do. When the underdog becomes the champion, the crowd starts rooting for someone to knock it down.
Modern Family’s co-creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan have earned some of the snarling. Nearly all hit sitcoms get broader year by year, as writers either lean too much on to the characters’ standout quirks or get bored with trying to keep stories within the realm of plausibility. But because Modern Family has such a large cast and such fast-paced storytelling, it became cartoony quicker than most.
Early on, the show established its types: Jay Pritchett (Ed O’ Neill), the standoffish, conservative patriarch; Gloria (Sofia Vergara), his fiery young Colombian trophy wife; Manny (Rico Rodriguez), Gloria’s dandyish son; Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen), Jay’s high-strung, control-freak daughter; Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), Claire’s soft-hearted goofball husband; Haley (Sarah Hyland), the Dunphys’ popular, fashion-conscious daughter; Alex (Ariel Winter), Haley’s brainy, sarcastic, socially awkward sister; Luke (Nolan Gould), the Dunphys’ dopey, accident-prone youngest son; Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Claire’s fastidious, worrywart younger brother; and Cam Tucker (Eric Stonestreet), Mitchell’s flamboyant, farm-raised husband. The writers have added supporting characters over the years, some of whom just appear every so often, while others—like Aubrey Anderson-Emmon’s Lily Tucker-Pritchett, Mitchell and Cam’s sour adopted daughter—have become regulars. Over the years, as its characters have become well-established, Modern Family has exaggerated what’s funny about them until at times they become unfunny. Claire is often too shrill, Cam too mincing, Gloria too… Gloria. And so some former fans have rebelled.
But any “backlash” against Modern Family has been relative to the series’ overall success, and has largely been contained to those who write and talk a lot about television, either professionally or as a pastime. The show still wins awards (which is a large part of what annoys some), and it’s maintained a steady audience of around 11 to 12 million viewers per original episode. More importantly, occasional character lapses and creative lulls aside, Modern Family has held to a fairly consistent level of quality throughout its six seasons. The cast and crew continues to produce polished farce with a well-earned sentimental streak, and a couple of times each season the writers experiment with form in ways that even the edgiest sitcoms rarely attempt. In the early going, the series sometimes seemed like at attempt to make the looniness of Arrested Development palatable to the mainstream. But with six seasons in the books, Modern Family has long since developed its own strong, influential voice.
In fact, if Modern Family seems less urgent essential than it did back in 2009, that’s partly because its success has had a profound effect on the programming at ABC in particular. The mockumentary craze has died down, but there’s still a demand for sitcoms that look cutting edge—which in the 2010s means single-camera shows with no laughter on the soundtrack—but have the sweetness and traditional plotting of the genre’s 1960s golden age. The Goldbergs, Fresh Off The Boat, and Black-ish have followed Modern Family’s lead in making stories about family squabbles and coming of age feel relevant to today. (ABC’s The Middle does this too, but it debuted in the same fall season as Modern Family, and came to a similar place all on its own.)
The ten episodes below are drawn from across Modern Family’s six seasons, and represent the range of what the show has tried to do, both as a format-breaker and as a standard-bearer for sitcom traditionalism. Some of these episodes are already acknowledged as modern TV classics; others are more divisive. All give a good idea of why Modern Family has remained so popular.
“Fizbo” (season one, episode nine): The Modern Family pilot separated its cast into separate storylines, and then brought them together for a surprise ending that revealed they were all related. In the weeks that followed, the writers kept the characters apart most often, although the show was at its strongest in the scenes and episodes that put all the families in one place and let them ping off of each other. “Fizbo” was the first-season episode that really proved what Modern Family could be, and is still often singled out as the series’ ideal, only occasionally matched. Beyond being zippy and crammed with jokes—all derived from the clans gathering for Luke’s over-planned birthday party—“Fizbo” works because like so many of this sitcom’s best episodes it’s rooted in real conflicts and familiar parental anxieties. Phil and Claire differ over how best to throw a party that will let the neglected Luke know how much they love him, while the rest of the relatives try to top each other with their contributions—including semi-retired professional clown Cam, whose performance gets thrown hilariously out of whack by a stray scorpion. There’s some fine physical comedy throughout “Fizbo,” coupled with lines like, “People are going to stare… They’re not used to seeing one clown in a car.” Everything pops.
“The Old Wagon” (season two, episode one): After scoring a surprise Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy for its first season, Modern Family returned for season two with a bigger audience and something to prove. The show came back strong too, with an episode that effectively combines wackiness and heart. The title of “The Old Wagon” is drawn from the main storyline, which sees the Dunphys taking a family drive in their soon-to-be-sold station wagon and finding that what was supposed to be an afternoon of fond memories quickly slides into bickering and mishaps—which, they eventually realize, represents their lives together better than the corny picnic they’d planned. Meanwhile, the dangerously un-handy Mitchell’s attempt to build a princess playhouse for Lily gets hijacked by Cam and Jay, leading to a series of conversations and gags about masculine and gay stereotypes. The bracing honesty of the “forced family time can be awful” Dunphy plot extends into the playhouse scenes, which grapple with Jay’s prejudices while still finding a way to end with Mitchell as a damsel in distress in a plywood castle.
“See You Next Fall” (season two, episode 23): Though it didn’t air as the season finale, “See You Next Fall” was the last in season two’s production order, and provided a strong finish to a second great year of Modern Family. If season one was about introducing these characters to TV viewers, then season two demonstrated how well they all know each other. In this episode, Phil’s plan to go on a trip with his old buddies from cheer squad means that he needs to force Claire to confront her emotions over Alex’s middle-school graduation earlier than she usually would. While Phil’s somewhat cruelly trying to get his wife to cry so that he won’t feel guilty about ditching her for the weekend, Cam’s nursing hurt feelings over Mitchell laughing at him for his clumsiness, and Haley’s trying to keep Alex from giving a valedictorian speech that’ll make her classmates angry and preemptively ruin her high school years. The comedy here is rooted partly in everyone’s self-centeredness, but also has to do with the kind of familial bonds that lead to an enhanced sensitivity to what a person really needs.
“Election Day” (season three, episode 19): Modern Family’s third season started showing some signs of creative fatigue, evident in three extended storylines—Cam and Mitchell making plans to adopt another child, Haley weighing her post-high school options, and Claire running for City Council—that accentuated some of those characters’ worst traits. But even a strained season of Modern Family was capable of some high points, like the episode where the family rallies to get out the vote for Claire’s doomed campaign. Directed by Bryan Cranston and penned by Onion/Daily Show/Colbert Report writer Ben Karlin, “Election Day” doesn’t treat the conclusion of the “Claire the candidate” plot as any kind of momentous occasion, but instead peppers the half-hour with gags, inspired by the voters the family meets and by Mitchell and Cam’s misadventures with a loudspeaker. Yet for all its zing, “Election Day” does come to an actual point, ending with Haley getting waitlisted to the only college that hadn’t already rejected her—and thus showing how the Dunphys and Pritchetts sometimes have to adjust their meaning of a “win.”
“Heart Broken” (season four, episode 15): Though some of the first wave of Modern Family fans wrote the sitcom off after its shaky third season, the show rebounded quite a bit in season four, bringing back concepts that had worked well in the past while trying some new approaches. “Heart Broken” features three stories set on and around Valentine’s Day, and two of them—Mitchell and Cam throwing a party for their wild single friends, and Claire and Phil checking into a hotel to role-play as “Juliana” and “Clive Bixby”—spring from premises that had previously been reliable laugh-getters. But the episode also breaks from Modern Family’s usual structure, skipping the intercutting and letting each plot run straight through, kind of like a miniature anthology series. The switch-up lets scenes play out longer than they usually would, bringing a new rhythm to the performances and the storytelling.
“Goodnight Gracie” (season four, episode 24): It’s tempting to call the season four finale another format-bender, since the entire episode takes place in the Florida retirement community where Phil’s preparing for his mother’s funeral. But Modern Family typically does two to three on-the-road stories a year, which means “Goodnight Gracie” isn’t that unusual. What is special is how well-crafted and frequently inspired this episode is, from a subplot that sees Mitchell helping Gloria out of a legal jam by talking like an old country lawyer, to a surprising finish that has Alex learning one more lesson from the grandmother who always understood her best. In seasons five and six, Modern Family has continued on in much the same vein of its ship-righting fourth season, but with fewer standout episodes. In a way, “Goodnight Gracie” is the end of an era, bidding its own farewell to the show’s groundbreaking first four years.
“Las Vegas” (season five, episode 18): Even though Modern Family is more in the “pleasant company” phase of its run these days, every now and then everything clicks again the way it did in the beginning. If not for the existence of “Fizbo,” it’d be easy to make the case for “Las Vegas” (yet another “the family takes a trip” story) as the series’ best. Leaving the kids out of the picture entirely, the episode takes the form of a classic bedroom-swapping sex farce, as what starts as an attempt by the various adults to have fun—be it Phil trying to join an underground magic club, Cam and Mitchell treating themselves to an erotic romp, or Jay making sure that he gets their hotel’s most exclusive luxury package—all ends with each of them in turn getting the wrong idea about just what kind of weekend the others have planned. Rocket-paced and packed with fun guest-stars (including a priceless Stephen Merchant as an eager butler), “Las Vegas” is contemporary TV comedy operating at its highest skill-level.
“Message Received” (season five, episode 22): The big running season five storyline had to do with Mitchell and Cam getting married, which in “Message Received”—the episode just before the wedding two-parter—leads to Jay admitting to Mitchell that even though he wants his son to be happy, his hidebound nature keeps him from being too enthusiastic about a gay marriage. Sometimes Modern Family doesn’t feel as “modern” as its title implies, because its characters are upper-middle-class residents of a diverse, tolerant part of California, and thus largely insulated from the struggles of ordinary people. This isn’t by accident; the show’s producers wanted to deal with everyday family situations, so they’ve pushed a lot of the rougher stuff aside. But in this episode (a rare one written by co-creator Levitan), Modern Family delves into how families can really hurt each other, because they know so much and care so much that they have a formidable arsenal of insults and slights.
“Halloween 3: AwesomeLand” (season six, episode six): Early on, Modern Family established Claire’s obsession with having the scariest house on the block on October 31st, and the show’s third Halloween episode explores that more by pitting her decorating inclinations against both Phil (who wants to go in a more whimsical direction) and their new hick neighbors (well-played by Steve Zahn and Andrea Anders). Meanwhile, confusion over Lily’s school costume pageant leads Mitchell to extend a bad run of luck in the courtroom. The ungainly title of “Halloween 3: AwesomeLand” underlines what it’s really about, as the Dunphys and Pritchetts set out with one idea in mind and get sidetracked both by circumstance and by outsiders who have something else in mind.
“Connection Lost” (season six, episode 16): Easily the most gimmicky Modern Family, “Connection Lost” spends its entire running time fixed on Claire’s laptop screen, where she’s trying to get in touch with Haley to make up after a fight. While sitting in an airport, Claire uses instant messaging, FaceTime, Facebook, Google, and various online shopping and information sites to keep communicating with and managing her family remotely. Directed by Levitan (who also co-wrote with Megan Ganz), “Connection Lost” fragments the usual frenetic Modern Family action into tabs and windows, in an attempt to capture an aspect of how we live today and to grab the attention of the sizable number of viewers who probably watch the show now while simultaneously poking around online. It’s a new way of advancing the core mission of Modern Family: to make broadly appealing, traditionally grounded television comedy that’s true to its times.