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Quest for Perfection: Family Portrait on the Season Finale of Modern Family

There are very few series that I fall in love with at first sight but Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd's superb comedy Modern Family was one of them, delivering an astute and nuanced portrait of a thoroughly modern family in America. Throughout the twenty-odd episodes that followed, I quickly fell in love with the extended Dunphy-Pritchett clan, looking forward to each Wednesday evening, when I would get a chance to curl up on the couch and spend a half an hour with my favorite television family.

The first season of ABC's deliciously hilarious comedy Modern Family comes to a close tonight with a fantastic episode ("Family Portrait"), written by Ilana Wernick and directed by Jason Winer, that displays the often complex bonds of family and how one's expectations of perfection don't always match up with reality.

The main storyline revolves around Claire (Julie Bowen) as she attempts to create the perfect setting for a family portrait of the entire Dunphy-Pritchett clan, unaware that her family is falling apart around her. Despite being married to Phil (Ty Burrell), as much of a fix-me-up as humanly possible, Claire is once again zeroing in on the tiny imperfections that lurk beneath the surface of her seemingly perfect world: the broken step.

An ongoing in-joke within the first season, the broken step on the staircase in the Dunphy home once again bubbles up, here a major plot point that offers not just a further complication to the ideal picture setting but a symbol of things that can't be fixed. Because, let's be honest, Bowen's Claire is like many married women: she's the uptight calm in the center of the storm, attempting to keep everything moving smoothly but often unable to let go.

Without giving too much away, Claire will most definitely have to let go by the end of the episode, a theme that culminates in a glorious sequence about unity and catharsis, all set amid the most humorously intense family portrait ever televised.

The rest of the episode recounts the hours before the command performance (and the white outfits they all must wear) as Cam (Eric Stonestreet) embarks on a professional music career and performs "Ave Maria" at a wedding (worry not: he's paid "in flowers"), Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) attempts to handle a pigeon loose in the apartment, Haley (Sarah Hyland) keeps an eye on Claire (and on a pimple); Jay (Ed O'Neill) recounts the tumultuous 1960s--and his stint in a barber shop--to Luke (Nolan Gould), and Phil and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) take Manny (Rico Rodriguez) and Alex (Ariel Winter) to a basketball game, where the two adults suffer through an awkward moment.

While each of the storylines are separate, they all come together at the very end of the episode as the family gathers together. Along the way, there are numerous complications, many destroyed objets of kitsch, an appearance by Kobe Bryant, a very uncomfortable kiss, and a painfully hysterical freak-out from Ferguson's Mitchell, set to Cameron's moving performance of "Ave Maria."

Tonight's installment, beautifully acted, written, and directed, offers us lot of laughs and some moments of genuine emotion, even from Hyland's eternally jaded Hayley. "Family Portrait" wasn't meant to be the season finale but works perfectly as a season ender. (Aside: Nolan Gould, via Twitter, sent me a message informing me that it was bumped backwards as the two-part Hawaii vacation was meant to close out the season; editor Ryan Case later told me that the finale would either be this episode or "Hawaii" and the network picked this one.)

But, really, whatever the case, I'm glad that the producers opted to use "Family Portrait" as the season finale for the first season. The final moments sum up so much of what this remarkable series is about, uniting the characters on screen in a way that wasn't accomplished in "Hawaii" (another brilliant outing) and giving us a nice visual that connects with the opening credits each week.

While Claire's idealized family portrait might not turn out the way she anticipated, the result--both for the family and for the audience--is perfect, nonetheless. As Modern Family goes on its extended summer vacation, I dare anyone watching to not feel that the series itself has also achieved perfection. See you in the fall, Dunphys and Pritchetts; you'll be missed in the meantime.

Modern Family's season finale airs tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on ABC.


Ramona said…
I'm really going to miss the Dunphy and Pritchett clans this summer. Modern Family is always a bright spot in my week and never fails to make me laugh out loud. Looking forward to tonight's ep!
Unknown said…
Love this show! The writing and the actors are outstanding.

Glad to see that a clever, intelligent, comedy can get good ratings!
Unknown said…
My entire family enjoys Modern Family--no mean feat. It seemed to me that this ep wasn't supposed to be the finale, but, as the same time, I think it's a perfect fit.

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