Jason Winer was directing Julie Bowen on first episode of "Modern Family" when inspiration struck.
"In the initial draft, Julie's character was described as mildly controlling and neurotic," Winer says of the suburban sitcom mom. "But what she didn't have in that draft was this idea that she was formerly a bad girl who had kind of reformed herself."
Winer thought the extra history could add an important dimension to Bowen's Claire Dunphy — and make a difference to the story featuring her teenage daughter, Haley, who just starting dating.
Ultimately, his suggestion led to one of TV's most widely quoted lines in recent years, with Claire saying, "I just don't want my kids to make the same bad mistakes I made. If Haley never wakes up on a beach in Florida half naked, I've done my job."
Now, two years and two straight Emmys as best comedy later, it is hard to imagine "Modern Family" or Claire without that extra edge. But at the time, suggesting to one of your stars that her uptight housewife character should suddenly take on a wild past could have been a big problem — if not for the rapport and trust that the two Baltimore natives share.
"I think the fact that we both come from Baltimore really does have an effect on our relationship and our work in Hollywood today," Winer says. "We go way back, and occasionally we'll even turn on our Baltimore accents for each other. We'll expose a little of our Baltimore twang to make each other laugh."
"We do go full Baltimore on accents some days, and no one can understand us," Bowen affirmed in a radio interview showcasing her best Bawlmer accent. "We can go real deep on the use of the word 'hon.'"
And they're doing it on one of the hottest sets in television — a critical and commercial success that some see as the catalyst for a renaissance in network comedy.
Each week, "Modern Family," a multicultural ensemble sitcom featuring three households of members of the Pritchett clan, is making about 14 million Americans laugh. In only its third season, the series has become such a ratings powerhouse that ABC placed it in head-to-head competition this fall with the most heavily promoted and eagerly anticipated reality TV series of the season in Simon Cowell's "The X Factor." And "Modern Family" blew the new Fox show away opening the year at 14.3 million viewers — up 1.5 million from last season's premiere.
"I'm sure Simon Cowell has a target on my back," says Steven Levitan, who co-created the series with Christopher Lloyd.
That's somewhat milder than the tweet Levitan posted when the premiere-week ratings were released: "It's extremely gratifying that a scripted comedy finally beat an over hyped karaoke contest. Thank you, #Modern Family fans!"
But perhaps the best gauge of the series' status this fall is the shorthand term that has been coined to describe its effect on networks' appetite for sitcoms: "the 'Modern Family' Effect." The "effect" tag is usually reserved in television circles for shows with such ratings clout that they jump-start entire genres or inspire slews of imitators.
That's not to say that the network comedy genre was totally dead when "Modern Family" launched in 2009. CBS sitcoms such as "Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" were doing quite well, in fact.
But comedies were mostly in the second tier of Nielsen ratings, with reality fare such as "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" crowding the top-rated show rankings year after year alongside tried and true dramas like "N.C.I.S."
Now, the genre is experiencing a revival, more than at any time since "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" ended their runs in the early '00s — with "Modern Family" leading the charge.
And the "Modern Family" Effect seems to be spreading. The first pickup of the season went to Fox sitcom "New Girl." And other half-hour comedy series — including "New Girl" and fellow rookie "2 Broke Girls" — got off to especially strong starts among adults ages 18 to 49.
Freshman ABC comedies "Suburgatory" and "Last Man Standing" and NBC's "Up All Night" are also looking good in the ratings. Meanwhile, veterans "Two and a Half Men" and "Big Bang Theory" have posted notable audience gains.
"Modern Family's" success might even be reinvigorating the family sitcom, a bedrock TV formula with roots that reach back to the very earliest days of prime-time network TV with "The Goldbergs" in 1949.
This fall there have been reports of several edgy family sitcoms in development — including two for NBC, one created by Ryan Murphy and the other starring Snoop Dogg. Edge is again a good thing in family sitcoms.
"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."
Still, for all of the new and improved techniques and technology, it's the old-school, family-friendly feeling that has rendered the series a hit at a time when shows have shifted toward being less broad in their appeal, according to Bill Carroll, a media analyst with Katz Television Group.
"TV was missing a show the whole family could watch," Carroll said. "And TV was missing a show that wasn't so specific in its sense of humor. 'Modern Family' deals with everyday circumstances, not someone going back to community college, or a quirky person running an office, or people at a TV show. Those are well-done shows, but pretty much everyone knows what it's like to have a family."
As family men themselves, Levitan and Lloyd thought creating a show that reflected the lives they were now living might translate to success. "There's something to be said about writing what you know," Levitan said. "We were both living this life — raising kids, dealing with very contemporary issues specific to these times."
The success this fall, which included an Emmy as best supporting comedy actress for Bowen, is making for a happy set at 20th Century Fox, where the sitcom is filmed. But nobody is taking it for granted or thinking it's forever.
"From our perspective, we're just doing our show," says Winer, who also serves as an executive producer. "Everybody is working really hard to be these characters, to write these scripts, to direct these episodes, and to edit them. And we're in a great groove and we're having fun doing that. And it's exciting that people talk about 'the effect' that it's having out there in the world — and the fact that it's succeeding on a critical and commercial level. But we have to remind ourselves that all that stuff — that's beyond our control."
The show's actors, who have mostly found fame late in long careers (with O'Neill as the most obvious exception, having starred on "Married … With Children" for 11 seasons), are also appreciative but cautious.
"I'm the great naysayer on set," said Bowen, who previously appeared on NBC's "Ed" and ABC's "Boston Legal." "I'm always looking for the backlash and for things to go terribly wrong. I've been on the darling that became the not darling. I've been on the one that never quite got off the ground. I've been on the one that sort of middled around for a while. I've been on those, so I'm prepared for it, I'm waiting for it."
Yvonne Villarreal is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
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