Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor
After two Emmy wins, it is no shocker that ABC’s megahit Modern Family has been nominated again for comedy series. What does come as a bit of a surprise is that having the most Emmy noms of any series this season, 14, hasn’t kept this from being jitters time for Levitan and Lloyd. In much the same way that Meryl Streep said she feared “Streep Fatigue” would cost her the Oscar for Iron Lady at this year’s Academy Awards, cocreators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd both say it’s tough to decide how to react when you are top dog.
“We don’t have fatigue, but I think we do worry that people won’t root for us as much as they did before we won”, Levitan admits. “We’re still very much invested in winning and whatever comes with that. Winning and what it represents”.
“But it’s very difficult, because you don’t want people to think we don’t care and [that] we’re past that”, he continues. “We’re not. We do care. But at the same time, you don’t want to seem presumptuous. This is a very strange and new experience for me, to be in this position where we have won two Emmys in a row and are going for a third. We have to be even better because there will be a lot of people looking to say, ‘Where else can I cast my vote?’ ”
The unease even follows them into the script process, Levitan says. “I can’t tell you how many times a beat will come up (in the writers’ room), and we’ll say: ‘That sounds familiar,’ or ‘That feels fake,’ or ‘That feels silly,’ because we were thinking in the back of our minds about those moments when people were judging this show in the television landscape. As somebody who overthinks this stuff, it’s tricky”.
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Offers Lloyd, “You’d like to think that people won’t say, ‘They’ve gotten a lot of attention, so let’s give them a good swat.’ Come on, all we’re trying to do is a good TV show. We didn’t ask for these awards. We’re not flaunting them”.
Continues Lloyd, “We live in an era now where every episode is reviewed 80 different times on the internet by periodicals you’ve never even heard of. You can get into overanalyzing what you do and slightly changing things to respond to what you’ve read. We have to go back to the instincts that brought us here”.
It’s a fine line to walk, agrees Dana Walden, cochairman of 20th Century Fox Television. “You’re relying on a specific peer group for the nominations and for the wins, and you don’t want to say anything that might be alienating”, she explains. “There’s a lot of good work being in the comedy space. You don’t want to act entitled”.
When the show became an unqualified hit in its first year, Walden, Lloyd, and Levitan say they saw a Modern Family effect in comedy development. Lloyd observed countless pilots that stuck the word “family” in their titles.
“I don’t think they necessarily got on the air”, Lloyd explains. “If there were imitators who found it a little more difficult to pull off than they thought it would be, that is, in a way, a compliment”.
Observes Walden, “We would hear from other networks in the broadest terms that they were all looking for their own Modern Family. What I take that to mean is, everybody wants their own great show. That doesn’t mean a blended family or multigenerational family or family with one gay couple. It’s an overly simplistic view of a very difficult process, trying to develop and nurture a hit show”.
Walden can still recall one of her favorite parts of the pitch for Modern Family: Levitan told a real-life story about his daughter Hannah, when Dad went to her room to tell her it was time to go to bed.
“Like any teenager, the second the door opens she’d hit a button on her computer and the screen would go dark”, Walden recounts. “He says, ‘Go to bed,’ and she says ‘OK.’ And as Steve says good night and turns around to leave, he hears two other girls say, ‘Good night, Mr. Levitan!’ And then one of them says, ‘Nice boxers!’ His daughter was Skyping with two of her friends. That’s modern family–it’s not a story you would have told 10 years ago”.
The show’s creators say that lucky casting has been as important as the concept for the series. They have yet to figure out whether there’s a formula for script success except to find “those little moments that ring true with people”, Lloyd says. “That’s often what brings people back to the show. Certainly the jokes or the big funny moments do, but it’s more the sweet moments, the moment when you really ring the bell for people in terms of finding a moment they have lived through themselves”.
And so far, they keep finding those moments. Next season, there are big changes afoot. The pregnant Gloria (Sofia Vergara) will struggle to fit into her sexy wardrobe just a little too long, and Hayley (Sarah Highland) is off to college. Cam (Eric Stonestree) and Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) will table their search for another child for now, and Cam returns to work as a music teacher.
With a cast of young actors involved in pivotal plot points, it’s important that the stories grow along with the characters.
“We are, fortunately and unfortunately, racing the clock”, Levitan says. “They are not Simpsons kids–they grow. And while it would be fantastic for our lifestyles to drop down to 18 episodes a year, we know the clock is ticking. You have to do the story of a 14-year-old while he’s 14”.
Levitan also says that he’s impressed by how crucial the kids have become to the success of the show.
“We are not in the position of asking for any more attention from the TV Academy, but what those kids do for us is amazing”, he says. “There are so many family shows where the kids are trotted out every third episode to say something too knowing or too wise or too sarcastic for their age. Our kids are a major dimension of our show”.
However, the most difficult thing, both producers say, is to keep coming up with fresh material for a show that might burn through four or five storylines in one episode–even if they continue to borrow real-life family stories from the whole staff.
“Whenever we are onto a really good area, somebody says: ‘They just did this on (another show),’ ” Levitan exclaims. “And the first thing out of my mouth is: ‘Stop watching TV!’ It shouldn’t preclude our exploring the same area in a way that is wildly different”.