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  • Writer's pictureSL Eastwood

Pilot Analysis… Modern Family

Updated: May 11

Just another day in the life of the Dunphy–Pritchett clan…

Modern Family, a heart-warming show that delighted us from 2009–2020, was a typical odd couple style single camera sitcom, developed for TV by Steve Levitan (Just Shoot Me) and Christopher Lloyd (Frasier) for the Network ABC. As per its logline–

“Three family units make up one large blended family portraying contemporary relationships of the 21st century who face the trials and tribulations of life, while still maintaining their close knit bond.”

The show centres around the Dunphy–Pritchett families, which includes the Dunphys, Phil (Ty Burrell), Claire (Julie Bowen), Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould); the Pritchetts (Jr), Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons); and Pritchetts (Sr), the family patriarch, Jay (Ed O’Neill), Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and, finally, Manny (Rico Rodriguez).

Later on there is also the addition of Joe (Jeremy Maguire), who is Jay and Gloria’s son. They are a large and blended family, with the representing the traditional nuclear family, while the other families show more modern family units, including a gay couple with an adopted child (Mitch & Cam), plus a May-December blended family (Jay & Gloria).

What type of pilot are we looking at?

Modern Family would be considered a “soft premise” pilot, using the novel “mockumentary” format as surrogate for the “fish out of water” character as a means to feed exposition to the audience, while throwing us into the action of an otherwise normal day.

As per the mockumentary style, Modern Family uses “talking heads”, which are those fake interviews, as a narrative function to give insight into the characters’s minds and actions in any particular moment.

Much of the comedy is derived from the oddness of the couples, all of whom are chalk and cheese, who will frequently have disagreements and attempts to one-up each other.

Plus, we see varying degrees of both delusion and stupidity from these characters throughout the seasons. The talking heads add a nice touch as they make great set ups to “cut to” punchlines.

Otherwise, the pilot uses a fairly standard 5-Act structure, switching between an A-Plot (the Dunphy’s) plus two equally weighted alternative plots, Gloria & Jay and Mitch & Cam.

So, let’s take a look at the pilot to see how creators, Levitan and Lloyd, brought this funny and wonderful show to life.

Spoilers graphic

It's time for Pilot Analysis… Modern Family edition:

Episode Structure
Teaser / Act One (A)

Plot-A: We open on the Dunphy family getting ready for their day, Claire is busy preparing breakfast for the kids while Phil is, typically, distracted and causing problems for Claire.

Haley is dressed inappropriately (for Claire’s liking), and Alex arrives to inform everyone that Luke has gotten his head stuck in the bannister… again.

Plot-B: Gloria and Jay watch Gloria’s son, Manny, at his soccer game. Gloria, a passionate Latina, cheers for her young son like her life depends on it, despite Manny being too distracted by a girl to play well, while Jay sits grouchily in a chair.

After Manny misses a kick, a parent complains and Gloria becomes a fearsome tiger-mom defending her cub. This leads to her being hit on by a dad, who mistakes Jay for Gloria’s father, only to learn that he is her husband.

Plot-C:  Mitch and Cam board a plane back to American from Vietnam, where they have just picked up their new adoptive baby, Lily. Nearby passengers coo over the adorable baby and enquire about Mitchell’s wife, who is later revealed to be the rather flamboyant Cameron.

Troubled by the sudden turn mood by the other passengers, Mitch threatens to give those gathered his “speech” about equality and tolerance but is talked down by a more level-headed Cam.

However, Mitchell misinterprets another passenger’s comment and launches into a tirade, only to realise that she’d made an innocent observation.

Act One (B)

Plot-A: Here we have a continuation of the first plot line, with Phil using baby oil to free Luke’s head from the bannister, as the family continue to go about their day. Here we learn that Haley intends to have a boy, Dylan, over for a date later on today.

Claire and Phil have differing opinions on this situation, with Claire acting as the concerned disciplinarian. While Phil, who has delusions of his own coolness, mortifies his kids with his unabashed dorkiness (Cut to: High School Musical routine), to show more family dynamics.

Suddenly, Alex rushes into the house complaining that Luke has shot him with a BB gun, and Claire instructs Phil that he must now shoot Luke with a BB, as per their agreement for letting Luke have the gun.

After some discussion, the parents schedule the punishment in their extremely full calendar for later that day.

Plot-B:  Gloria smothers Manny post soccer game and praises him, despite Manny saying that he dislikes soccer because it is too childish for him. Manny is wise beyond his years and sees himself as a Lothario and romancer of older women.

In the car, Jay scolds Gloria for her fight with the other soccer mom, but she is unwilling to take the criticism, claiming that Jay is too reserved and should be more like she is.

Manny has written a poem for the girl who distracted him during the soccer game, and requests for his parents to take him to the mall where she works so he can ask her out, despite the fact she is several years older than him.

Jay gripes saying that it is a bad idea, but ever the indulging mother, Gloria agrees to the request.

Plot-C: Cam and Mitch arrive home with Lily, where Mitchell questions whether their new baby will be comfortable with two men after having grown up in an orphanage run by women.

Cam soothes Mitch’s nerves as they settle back into the house, where their gay friends have set up the nursery for them, and painted a mock renaissance mural that depict Cam and Mitch as half-naked angels hovering over Lily’s cot.

As expected, Mitch hates it, which he explains is somewhat due to his father’s discomfort in the fact that Mitch is gay. He also tells Cam that he didn’t tell his family that they had adopted a baby yet.

However, Cam was already aware of his fact due to Mitch being an “avoider”, and he has invited the whole family over that night to meet their new baby. Mitch is horrified but Cam puts his foot down.

Act Two

Plot-A: Dylan arrives at the Dunphy home and Claire intervenes before Haley can sneak him upstairs and they try to get to know the boy, much to Haley’s chagrin. Claire learns that Dylan is a high school senior, who she thinks is too old to date their 15 year old daughter.

Then, after a failed attempt to surreptitiously “dad intimidate” Dylan, Phil injures his back and Dylan is forced to carry him to the sofa to rest it. Haley and Dylan then head upstairs, Claire heads to the kitchen to bake a cake, and Phil is left on the sofa alone.

Plot-B: Gloria and Jay take Manny to the mall so he can ask out the high school girl, despite Jay’s protests, and Gloria talks to Jay about his bad mood, diagnosing that it has been caused by the soccer parent assuming he was Gloria’s father.

Gloria shows herself to be a supportive parents and partner, who allows her son to be himself no matter how foolhardy it might be. Gloria tells Jay he should embrace her parenting style telling him he ought to “be the wind at his back, not the spit in his face”, a quote that Jay misses the meaning of entirely.

When Manny returns, after being rejected like Jay said he would, the family head into the mall to try to cheer him up. During this time, a security guard mistakes Jay for a member of a geriatric walking group, leading Jay to wonder if the issue is because of his clothes.

Back to Plot-A: Claire bakes a cake in the kitchen where she is joined by Alex, who begins planting seeds in Claire’s head about the misdeeds Haley and Dylan could be getting up to.

Although Claire is aware that Alex is trying to manipulate her, it still has the desired effect.

At the same time, Phil is preparing to deliver Luke’s punishment, but after a discussion Phil finds himself unable to shoot his son with a BB gun, but then does anyway by accident.

Claire goes to Haley’s room to disrupt their date, projecting her own youthful indiscretions on her teenage daughter, causing Haley to seek Phil’s help in getting Claire to back off.

This is a double backfire when Phil not only accidentally shoots Dylan in the neck with the BB gun, he also shoots himself in the foot, causing mayhem at the Dunphy house.

Act Three

Plot-C: Finally, we return to Mitch and Cam’s house, Cam heads off to prepare Lily for the meeting, leaving Mitch to anxiously await the arrival of his family.  All the dots are connected as the Dunphys arrive followed by Jay, Gloria and Manny to reveal that those were Mitch’s family all along.

With Cam still missing, Mitch nervously begins trying to explain about Lily, but is persistently interrupted by his family, who first assume Cam has left Mitch. However, when he explains that he and Cam are fine, but they had been thinking of adopting, he is treated to a second tirade by his judgmental family who think he wouldn’t do well with a child due to how high-strung he is.

Insulted, Mitch is interrupted when Cam suddenly appears in a flamboyant display holding Lily up like she is Simba in the Lion King. Ready for his family to go into a frenzy, Mitch and Cam are relieved when the whole family rally around the new baby and are excited by her arrival.

After some discomfort, Jay corrects his earlier behaviour saying that what he’d said was wrong, he once again brings up the saying “be the wind at his back, not the spit in his face” having finally understood its meaning thanks to this moment.

The family rejoices together and Jay rounds off the moment by reading Manny’s poem, which manages to perfectly encapsulate the feeling of “No matter what, you stick by the people you love”.


Calling back to a previous talking head, we have a final scene cutting between Phil and Luke playing trampoline basketball while Phil is “interviewed” by the fake TV crew.

This scene shows Phil being typically delusional talking how he will one day be a gracious loser the day Luke finally surpasses him in basketball skills, while seen using dirty tactics against his young son.


The pilot doesn’t really open with much of a teaser, which is a common feature of non-premise pilots, and it could moreso be seen as Act One part A, as it lays the groundwork for all of the intersecting plots of the episode.

Each of the plot lines show the characters in scenarios that are very “typical” and will be things the audience should expect from them going forward.

The episode is very similar in format to almost every episode of Modern family, where most of the Acts are done in triplets showing parallel plot lines for each individual family group, with those storylines converging towards the Third Act.

As per the established format, each plot line across all five Acts gets a “talking head” where the adults in each storyline give context to their individual family dynamics at this moment in time.

In this pilot the central dilemma is stripped down to minor disagreements between characters, rather than real tangible obstacles, since the main aim of the episode is to establish character dynamics and give a sense of the world.

There is no need to complicate things as the main intrigue comes from learning about the characters and how the different storylines connect.

I personally think this is a very effective pilot. Its simple construction allows character dynamics to play out, which makes the concept clear for the audience, and helps us understand exactly who these people and are what the show will be about going forward.


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