Cast's chemistry shines at first run-through

Going into its second season, “Modern Family” had a lot to prove after capping its freshman year on ABC with a megabucks syndication sale and the Emmy win for comedy series.

By any measure, the 20th Century Fox TV laffer built impressively on its strong foundation, finishing the 2010-11 season as primetime’s top sitcom in the 18-49 demo.

All of the good vibes and creative momentum driving the show were evident on a sunny Thursday afternoon in March when cast members, writers, producers, studio execs, friends and family members gathered in a conference room in Building 104 on the 20th Century Fox lot for lunch and the final table reading of the season.

For sitcoms, the table read is the first line of defense. It’s where the magic comes alive — or doesn’t. It’s the forum where plot holes are spotted, jokes are improved, character traits are honed and kinks are worked out. For well-oiled shows, table reads are usually a good time. For episode No. 48 of “Modern Family” — “See You Next Fall,” written by Danny Zuker — the table read is a very good time.

The 1 p.m. sesh starts convivially with about 50 or so attendees gabbing and filling up their plates from the generous spread of pasta, salad and vegetables. The chocolate-chip bread pudding is particularly well received.

Gradually, the actors make their way to the long narrow table at the front of the room. Their places are designated by 10 cardboard name plates, and next to each of those are a table setting comprising pencils, pens, notepads, fluorescent highlighters, a bottle of water and a pack of gum. Five rows of chairs face the table.

Rico Rodriguez, who plays Manny, slides into his spot and crosses himself before eating. Afterward, he takes a moment to show off his electric-blue high top sneakers to Nolan Gould (Luke), who nods approvingly. Eventually, the boys both grab a script from the stack at the end of the table and begin thumbing through the pages, highlighters in hand.

By now, several other “Modern Family” stars have come in, fresh from filming the season finale. (Despite the production sked, “See You Next Fall” aired as the penultimate episode of the season.)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson sports a white sailor suit that is his costume for most of the official season finale. Eric Stonestreet looks like an Easter egg in a baby-pink checkered Oxford shirt. Sofia Vergara is sexy as ever in a royal blue slip dress and clogs. Julie Bowen hints of a flashback scene in a ’70s-style T-shirt and bellbottoms. Series co-creator/exec producer Steve Levitan arrives in jeans, a “Modern Family” T-shirt and his left arm in a sling after breaking his collarbone in a skiing accident. He is teased about being the one-armed director of this episode, which lensed a few days after the March 10 table read.

Amid the din of chit-chat and chewing, Vergara’s voice cuts through with the timbre of a mom calling a kid to the dinner table.

“Rico, you want bread pudding?” she asks from the craft services table, sounding every bit like her character, Gloria. “Already had some,” Rodriguez responds. They may only be mother and son on TV, but the affection between them is unmistakable.

Once the actors are seated and have finished eating, Levitan settles in next to Gould and Ariel Winter at the head of the table and starts the session. “Modern Family” co-creator/exec producer Christopher Lloyd watches from the audience’s vantage point, seated on the far end of the back row of chairs.

“Welcome to the final table read of the second season,” Levitan says. Stonestreet punctuates with a loud “No!”

Levitan takes a moment to thank a few people “who don’t get as much attention as they deserve,” including co-exec producer Jeff Morton, the directing team and numerous assistants.

After the applause dies down, Levitan reads the opening stage directions. With a minimum of set-up, the laughs begin as the scene shifts to the Dunphy household as middle daughter Alex prepares for her middle-school graduation, where she is valedictorian. The subplots involve Jay’s ill-fated decision to try Botox and a malfunctioning driveway gate that threatens to keep Phil and Claire from getting to Alex’s graduation in time.

Reading the unfamiliar script along with the actors makes the table-read aud appreciate how much they breathe life into the material. With every inflection and every characterization choice, the thesps make the words on the page their own. As the reading progresses, they become more animated and more in the skin of their characters.

But they also take different approaches to the process. Ed O’Neill and Ty Burrell are far more subdued in their delivery and mannerisms than they will be when the cameras are rolling. Bowen, on the other hand, gesticulates wildly at times and puts her all into the vocal patterns that viewers expect from Claire. Ferguson laughs so hard at times, along with the aud, that his face turns bright red.

A particularly funny bit involves O’Neill talking to Vergara over the intercom outside the front gate of their home, with Rodriguez also chiming in. Without any props or close-cropped edits, the trio’s natural sense of timing in this scene have the crowd howling, so much so that Levitan has to wait to continue with his stage directions.

Other than waiting out the laughs, there’s virtually no stopping in this table read. Levitan asks O’Neill to repeat the line “What’s the plan, MacGayver?” when O’Neill first reads it as “MacGyver.” Levitan doesn’t tell O’Neill what was wrong — he doesn’t have to.

The actors look as entertained as the audience when the last line of the script (“My baby!”) is delivered by Bowen.

“Very nice,” Levitan says, smiling.

The crowd disperses quickly after the reading is over. O’Neill and Sarah Hyland are whisked away in a waiting golf cart. Rodriguez ambles off in another direction on foot. A 20th Century Fox TV exec remarks to no one in particular as he walks back to his office: “How do you give notes on something like that?”

Postscript:

Other than little bits of business here and there, the script for “See You Next Fall” hardly changed by the time the episode aired May 18. As many laughs as there were around the table on March 10, the final product is a testament to the rock-solid “Modern Family” cast and their skill at physical comedy.

Vergara’s rubber-faced reactions to Jay’s admission of trying Botox, Stonestreet’s pratfalls and the climactic moment where Phil and Claire come tumbling down a hill just in time for Alex’s speech were Emmy reel-worthy moments that underscore the show’s embarrassment of thespian riches. A shout-out is also due to the show’s costume designers for wardrobe selections that added to the whimsy, particularly Stonestreet’s white linen suit and panama hat.

Road to the Emmys: Preview:
TV diversity more apparent in stars than stories | ‘Modern Family’ spark seen at table read | Broadcast nets hang tough at Emmys | Emmy host with the most is a ghost | Returning Emmy contenders | Brilliant but canceled, still nominated? | Product integration finds TV comfort zone | Cult faves make pass at Emmy end zone

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