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Will 'Modern Family' be the last great network sitcom?

The Dunphy kids all grown up: Ariel Winter

The Dunphy kids all grown up: Ariel Winter (left), Nolan Gould and Sarah Hyland of "Modern Family." Credit: ABC/Eric McCandless

 Could this be The End? 

Don't worry (in the unlikely event that you were). This isn't another one of those columns about a world turned upside down and the fallout when it's turned right side up again. This is about the end of "Modern Family." Could this be the end — of the family sitcom, or the big commercial network show, of the very networks that once aired them? 

"Could" is a wonderful word because hidden behind it is a trap door through which to escape in the event predictions of doom are premature or flat-out wrong. Let's slip through this one right away: The family sitcom will survive, ABC, too, and there will always be the big commercial network show as long as there's a "Law & Order" or "Chicago" in the title. 

But big commercial network comedy? That's another matter altogether which is why Wednesday feels so epochal. "Modern Family" (behind-the-scenes special at 8 p.m.; finale at 9)  is done. What will replace it? What possibly could? 

"Family" arrived in 2009 when we were tugging at the same worry beads. The mockumentary ("The Office") seemed to have run its course, the also-still-great "30 Rock" as well. Clever network sitcoms ("How I Met Your Mother") had written themselves into corners. Acclaimed comedies like "Weeds" or "Nurse Jackie" spoke to our cynicism, our gathering gloom. The law of diminishing returns had set in (except with "The BIg Bang Theory," which always seemed to get overlooked in those worry-bead discussions).

Enter "Family" and another 2009 freshman, "The Middle." The clouds dispersed. The sun came out. The network comedy would live to see another day. This one scored five straight Emmy wins, tying "Frasier" from the last century.

Not that "Modern Family" did much of anything to radicalize the oldest of sitcom formulas. This was really about the triumph of tradecraft,  writing, direction and especially acting. Veteran showrunners Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd knew just how unproductive the comedy-is-dead discussions were — or how self-fulfilling. But get the right players, the right tone, the right everything, and magic will follow. Magic pretty much did.

     "Family" did, however, offer a unique premise that helped it to resonate in that specific moment, revolving around the "modern" conjoined to the "family." Proposition 8 had passed the year before in California, outlawing gay marriage,  threatening to reverse thousands of legal unions. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) were hardly the first gay lead characters in prime-time, but the first in a committed long-term relationship. They'd have to wait until the 5th season to marry, but by then the normalcy of their union had already made that a foregone conclusion.  They and adopted daughter Lilly (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) were part of the modern family, in a sense part of everyone's extended or immediate family. Cam and Mitch may not have killed Prop 8 but they did expose its manifest cruelty. "Modern Family" was on the right side of history, which is something a lot of TV comedies don't get to say.

Meanwhile, It did occur to me that some readers may actually be surprised that "Modern Family" is still on the air, so diminished are the ratings and cultural cache. The show's producer (Fox) cut a syndication deal with USA Network a few years ago but "Family" would have been far better served on Netflix where a whole new generation of fans could discover it. Instead, early seasons have largely disappeared from the platforms that count most right now (the streaming ones). That makes Wednesday almost anticlimactic because in a sense, "Modern Family" already is gone.

In preparation for this final farewell, go back and watch a few episodes from this last season (available on Hulu). Any one of them will do. The tradecraft is still there. The same setup lines. The same jokes about raising kids and babies. Fizbo the clown. Phil's (Ty Burrell) nerdly proclivity for magic. Claire's (Julie) nerdy proclivity for Phil. Those well-worn jokes and setups still work. The cast is still great. The craftsmanship is still there. 

That's both reassuring and sobering because this could — yup, could — be the last of the great network sitcoms.                 

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