"I keep hearing about this 'Modern Family' effect," Levitan says. "That's what happens in Hollywood. It's just weird when you've got the show people want to imitate. How many times did people try to re-create 'Friends'?" It's not like we're the Holy Grail. Something else will come along eventually. We were just lucky to have created the right show at the right time."

Unlike most smart, sophisticated sitcoms that take time to find an audience, "Modern Family" was a hit almost from the moment it debuted — thanks in part to the efforts of Winer and Bowen.

The pilot that Winer directed and won a Directors Guild of America Award for was far and away the most-talked-about comedy pilot of that fall — celebrated for everything from its easygoing but enlightened take on multiculturalism, gay identity and family life, to its use of multiple cameras in achieving a new, improved and energized version of the single-camera, mockumentary comedy look.

Bowen, whose performance earned instant acclaim, filmed the pilot while pregnant. The first time viewers see Claire she is carrying a basket full of laundry as TV moms have for decades — changing demographics and gender roles notwithstanding. Only in this case, the laundry was also there to mask her pregnancy. The deft sleight of hand involving the character at the very center of this series could not have worked without close collaboration between actress and director, and like the "wild past," it led to the further evolution of Claire.

"'I was eight and a half months pregnant with twins while we shot the pilot," Bowen says. "If you watch carefully, you see I'm behind every laundry basket. I'm answering the door folding towels. It was just a function of hiding my belly, but then it sort of became part of the character. Claire is always doing something. She's never hanging out. She's always folding or cleaning or doing something."

The ensemble series tracks three households in the Pritchett clan. There's the home of patriarch Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill), who is married to the much younger Gloria Delgado (Sofia Vergara). She has a son from a previous marriage who lives with the couple.

Jay's daughter, Claire, meanwhile, is married to the emotionally adolescent Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell), and they have three children.

Claire's brother, Mitchell (Jess Tyler Ferguson), and his partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), have an adopted Vietnamese baby rounding out their family.

While much has been made of the ground that "Modern Family" has broken in terms of depicting the family of Mitchell and Cameron, and the multicultural Jay Pritchett household, Winer says the show is also very traditional.

"I would say we deal with matters of multiculturalism and gay issues quite matter of factly," the Friends School graduate says. "It just exists, and it is accepted. Look, this family that the show is about has been dealing with and accepting it, and we're plopped right into the middle of their lives, so shouldn't we deal with it and accept it in the same matter of fact way that they do? ... In some way, Cameron and Mitchell, the gay parents, are the most traditional family in the show."

Furthermore, he adds, "I think this family is a different kind of TV family in that the jokes don't come because this family is dysfunctional or these people are broken in one way or another. There's a sweetness at the core of the show."

That seamless combination of seeming contradictions is what makes this sitcom so right for the current era of economic uncertainty and technological transformation. It's secret of success is in managing to feel edgy and forward-looking while also being as comforting and familiar as an old sofa — or a 1950s family sitcom set in the white-pocket-fence promised land of suburbia.

Consider the pilot and Claire's line about having "done my job" if she keeps her daughter from making the mistakes she made.

"Our job," says Phil, correcting her.

"Right, I've done our job," she replies with a bite that perfectly defines their relationship and the role she plays as the adult and would-be disciplinarian in the Dunphy household.

And yet, the episode ends with a big, warm, loving family gathering that reaffirms the marriages of all three Pritchetts — hers included, as self-absorbed and immature as her husband might be.

"It gives you the big family hug at the end of each episode," Winer says.

That throwback sensibility is balanced in the age of Twitter and Apple by giving prominence to the role technology plays in the characters' lives. New technology is so prominent in the series that the Disney-owned network received some conflict-of-interest criticism for devoting an entire episode pegged to Phil's desire to have an iPad at a time when Steve Jobs was the largest shareholder in Disney.

An awareness of how YouTube and Tivo have changed audiences was also incorporated into the very look of the series, with the producers borrowing and improving upon the mockumentary format previously used on such workplace comedies as "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation."

"Visually, what we try to do with the camera is let it feel like the audience is observing the joke," Winer says. "I think the audience has grown more sophisticated over the years because we now have a whole generation of people growing up with YouTube and reality content. People like to discover things — rather than showing you the joke, the show likes to let you find the joke."