Like The Office (2005), sitcom Modern Family (2009) employs a faux-documentary approach to its storytelling. The characters frequently look directly at the camera as if to address the audience, and “confessional” cutaway moments in which the characters offer commentary to the viewer punctuate each scene. But unlike the setup of The Office, wherein the characters are knowingly being filmed by a documentary team for a TV show (which somehow takes 9 years to shoot), in Modern Family it’s unclear who the characters are talking to. There’s never any reference to a film or show being made about their lives, and they never address any of the documentarians by name.
The original concept of Modern Family included another character: a Dutch filmmaker who, 20 years earlier, had lived with the Pritchett family. Now working on a documentary about American families, he returned as an adult to film their lives. The working title for the series was “My American Family,” a title which referenced the Dutch character and made him a prominent part of the narrative.
Obviously, that’s not the route they ended up taking. Series creator Christopher Lloyd has directly stated the show has failed to explain why, in its final iteration, they kept the documentary style but jettisoned the documentarian. But he notes that breaking the fourth wall is not a new or jarring idea—Christopher Guest and Albert Brooks did it for years in films, and even Ferris Bueller stopped to address the audience—and Lloyd doesn’t really think it needs an explanation. The audience can create their own story as to why this family is being filmed and who’s doing it, which is good enough.
Of course, that’s exactly what people are doing. A number of fan theories exist about the style’s true nature, figuring there has to be more to it than a simple stylistic decision. In Reddit’s FanTheories subreddit, one fan elaborates on his conviction that the show is adult Luke’s (Nolan Gould) documentary, based on character evidence and the fact that we never hear the documentarian asking any questions. Another fan suggests they’re all talking to a therapist, and the scenes are flashbacks re-enacting the things they tell the therapist. If that were the case, the only “real” moments of the program would be those that break the fourth wall; the rest would be memories.
There’s also the theory that the whole show is a follow-up show to a previous documentary about Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) adopting Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons), or the one that sumises it’s all a rich family’s way of creating a photo album only the 1% could afford.
The show’s creators would probably be fine with any of those interpretations.
The device hasn’t been entirely well-received. As Jaime Weinman of Maclean’s writes, “New Jersey Star-Ledger critic Alan Sepinwall wrote that the show needs to make up its mind whether the talking heads are real or fantasy, because ‘the current approach is just distracting.’ But [series co-creator Steven] Levitan has said the documentary is ‘just our style of storytelling,’ a device to reveal characters’ feelings.”
Modern Family is, at its core, a traditional, heartfelt, and at times saccharine sitcom. Its episodes often have moral messages and even, in the final minutes, tend to lead out with rising instrumentals overlaid with Bob Saget-esque syrupy dialogue encapsulating the episode’s feel-good takeaway. The documentary format is perhaps the characteristic that most sets it apart stylistically from the waves of positive family comedies that have come before. So while a handful of viewers may find its approach awkward, it’s likely a contributing factor to what has made the show such a great success. Many humorous moments are facilitated by the format, and it’s hard to imagine the show any other way.