Ending Modern Family‘s first season with a family portrait made sense on more than one level. From a simple storytelling perspective, it’s a natural, plausible way to get the entire extended family together for a season-sapping scene after following their separate subplots through the episode. On a meta level, a season finale (if it’s not setting up a cliffhanger, e.g.) is trying to do much the same thing as a family picture does: to leave you one last document that crystallizes an idealized image of the show/family at its best—to take every fond memory you have of the last year and capture it in an indelible keepsake you can look at until the next time you’re all together.
Like the extended Dunphy clan’s ultimate photo, “Family Portrait” was a bit messy and didn’t quite match the highest points of the series that it was meant to recall. But as a way to give us one last closing look at what has made this show, and this family, special, it was more than good enough.
“Portrait” set out to do what some of Modern Family’s best episodes have done, notably “Fizbo,” in my opinion the show’s best episode overall: it moves the characters toward one central event, setting in place the elements for both hilarious disaster and a moment of catharsis. “Portrait” did that, with the basketball kiss, the stained furniture, the white outfits and the pigeon nightmare all setting up the climactic squabbles and slapstick ending. It didn’t do it quite as well as “Fizbo,” which was a classic multiple-car crash of comedy (and which had the unfair advantage of involving a crossbow and comb sheaths).
Still, it did have plenty of laugh-out-loud material, including a strong performance from Ty Burrell, showing Phil’s increasing distress as he misinterprets the messages from Claire and Jay after the “Kiss Cam” fiasco, and slo-mo pigeon battle scored to “Ave Maria,” which recalled a scene from The Godfather if The Godfather were about pigeons. And it worked in callbacks to earlier in the season, such as the infamous loose stair (see clip above).
Most important, the closing minutes—the mud fight, followed by Jay’s monologue, followed by Luke interruption to mitigate the schmaltz—showed how Modern Family has, over one season, managed to strike the right balance of warmth and funny, without lapsing into sentimentality. This sitcom has shown staying power, and until it comes back, I’m glad to have this to remember it by.