Mainsprings and maturity: how ‘Modern Family’ found and then lost its magic

Charles Arthur
12 min readApr 26, 2020
An ABC promotional photo for Modern Family. ©ABC

There’s a surely apocryphal story about George Best, the legendary soccer player whose Irish good looks were the perfect counterpoint to his flashing foot skills. As Best’s skills are beginning to wane, he is still a huge hit with the opposite sex. And so it is one morning that he’s waking up in a hotel suite with two Miss World contestants on either side, with champagne bottles littering the room. He calls down to room service for breakfast.

A bellhop duly arrives with the breakfast. He’s a huge Manchester United fan, disappointed that Best isn’t in his prime any more. “Oh George,” he exclaims, unable to help himself as he looks at the scene. “Where did it all go wrong?”

(A variant is, again apocryphally, told by Best himself. “I had a lot of money,” he once mused. “I spent a lot on women and booze…” Short pause. “The rest I wasted.” Of course, this epithet is attributed to loads of people.)

So as Season 11 of Modern Family grinds towards the two-hour (sorry, TWO HOUR?) finale in the UK, I have to ask: oh, Modern Family, where did it all go wrong? I’ve watched every episode of every season, sometimes re-watching them in big binges. Now I’ve been watching every episode of Season 11 and thinking: weren’t the jokes funnier before, the zingers snappier? Weren’t the situations a bit wilder, their resolutions smarter? Why am I not enjoying this like I used to? Why am I not laughing?

Don’t get me wrong: the series as a whole is a wonder. The use of the “mockumentary” format wasn’t new, but where The Office US (a far gentler product than the British version) had led in the US, Modern Family followed and improved, using the tried-and-tested six-hander format (six main characters: think Friends, Big Bang Theory, Frasier — OK, only five in Frasier, unless we’re counting Eddie the dog). Unlike Friends, they were related to each other in complex ways, and they didn’t live across the hall from each other. They were grownups, dealing with grownup (or sometimes not) problems.

Also unlike Friends (but like The Office US), there was no laugh track or studio audience, which for a prime-time US sitcom is exceptionally brave. A laugh track would have ruined it.

Charles Arthur

Tech journalist; author of “Social Warming: how social media polarises us all” and two others. The Guardian’s Technology editor 2005–14. Speaker, moderator.