Instead, Levitan, co-creator Christopher Lloyd, their writers’ room and their cast have spent the past year and a half focused on creating a final season that would “build some things in that lead to that [ending] nicely,” Levitan said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour panel for the show Wednesday.
The team behind the show didn’t know how it would end early on. There were originally talks that the sitcom could end after the 10th season, and if that came to fruition, Levitan said the ending of the series would have revolved around the birth of Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Dylan’s (Reid Ewing) twins. But once they made the deal to move beyond that into an 11th and final season “we were in unchartered territory.”
The final season is making a point to call out some of the “lasts” of the series, such as the last Halloween and Christmas, but it is still managing to find new and unique things to do with the on-screen family, too. Although they have taken family trips before, allowing the cast and crew to travel to such places as Disneyland, Hawaii and Australia, this season they are going to Paris.
“I was very excited when ‘Modern Family’ was going to go there beause every time we travel as a group we have the best time. We get to see each other even more than when we are in Los Angeles because when we’re in Los Angeles everyone goes to their home but when we travel we’re trapped in a hotel,” said Sofia Vergara. “And I was able to do a lot of shopping, so it was perfect.”
The trip to Paris has quickly climbed to the top of the list of favorites for many of the cast members, including Eric Stonestreet who shared that he ate butter he thought was cheese while on location there and it was so good he called his girlfriend and told her they had to find it in America. Looking back over the 11-year run, the pilot episode and the first table read that came ahead of shooting the pilot were highlights as well.
“For me, and probably for many of us, it’s a moment in history,” said Jesse Tyler Ferguson. “The first time we all came together in a table read, it was an immediate connection. I remember Sofia giving everyone hugs, and I just thought, ‘This is the nicest, most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in my life, and she gets to play my stepmother.”
Ferguson added that he also remembered thinking that even if the show wasn’t a hit, he knew he could stand behind it because of how unique it was.
Part of that uniqueness was Ferguson’s character Mitch and his then-onscreen boyfriend, now-onscreen husband Cameron (Stonestreet).
“I do think putting a gay couple in the forefront and not having it be a sidekick [but] having it be an integrated part of the family and not leading with the fact that they’re gay [was] revolutionary back then,” Ferguson said. “I don’t think it’s as revolutionary now, which I think is a great hting. I hope Mitch and Cam open the door for other writers to be inspired.”
Early on in “Modern Family’s” run there were some concerns about how much affection Mitch and Cam showed onscreen, specifically questioning how much their relationship may have been censored at the network level. But neither Ferguson nor Stonestreet feel that relationship was treated any differently than any of the others on the show.
“I actually love the way that we rolled out the relationship of Mitch and Cam,” said Ferguson, specifically pointing out that he enjoys when they bicker because “no one turns on the TV to see people having a perfect life. I think conflict and resolve is way more interesting.”
Speaking to that first season criticism about perceived lack of affection between Mitch and Cam, Ferguson added that he loved the way that story unfolded because the writers ” tied in Mitch’s specific history with PDA back to his dad and the lack of affection from his father, which I thought was way more interesting than just having these two people kiss for the enjoyment of America.”
“Modern Family” has also been unique in started with a cast that included four child actors as main members of the ensemble and grown to include two more over the years. Initially, Levitan said, he and Lloyd considered making the show an animated one because “that’s how much we don’t want to work with kids.” But then they cast Hyland, Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould and Rico Rodriguez and he said they felt like they hit the jackpot.
As those younger performers grew up onscreen it wasn’t always easy for them. Gould recalled hitting puberty in the hiatus of a season, and when he returned he couldn’t even get through one line of dialogue without his voice cracking. Winter shared she “especially hated the year I had braces” but also had a similar experience to Gould where she hit puberty over the summer and when they returned for the next season, suddenly there were millions of people who were watching the show that “think they know you really well and they can comment on everything you do, what you wear.” For Hyland, who was 18 when the show began, she said she looks back and cringes over the times she was struggling with her health and “had prednisone face.”
“People really love to attack women especially,” Hyland said, ” and I think Ariel is such an amazing woman and has always been so mature and handles it with such grace and poise. And I think between the two of us we really have gone and tackled them with all of our spite and wit.”
Winter added that it is the “great support in each other” that made those younger performers stronger as they grew up in front of the world together.
That support is something none of the team behind the show is taking lightly. Levitan admitted there were some early fears that no one would find what they were doing funny, but the family they put together offscreen meant more than anything.
“This show does kind of ruin you,” said Ty Burrell. “Everybody’s going to go on to do great stuff but … the people, the quality of the material, the hours — frankly, everything about it is going to make it hard to follow this job.”
“Modern Family’s” final season returns to ABC Jan. 8 and will air its series finale April 8.