'Modern Family' keeps sitcom alive

When the chips are down, you can always count on family.

The past two times that sitcoms were given last rites, it was mom-and-pop operations —"The Cosby Show" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" — that came to the rescue. This season's savior: ABC's "Modern Family," a single-camera, multi-layered comedy that feels right at home alongside such classics as "Leave It to Beaver," "The Brady Bunch" and "Roseanne."

"I think people were hungry for a good family sitcom, and this one has been updated in a really smart way," said Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell Pritchett, a self-conscious attorney who's still not sure his father has accepted Mitchell's boyfriend and the Vietnamese baby they've adopted. After watching past sitcom efforts fail, Ferguson can't quite believe this one has stuck so quickly. "I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop."

According to the numbers, Ferguson has little to worry about.

"Modern" premiered to a whopping 12.7 million viewers and has consistently kept at least 10 million a week, an impressive feat considering the Wednesday-night competition has included "American Idol," the World Series and CBS' established hit "Criminal Minds."

In comparison, "30 Rock," TV's most critically acclaimed sitcom, averages fewer than 7 million a week, while "Two and a Half Men," TV's most popular sitcom, attracts more than 15 million.

What's even more remarkable is that "Modern" has achieved success with no help from an established hit. "Two and Half Men" spent its first few seasons following "Raymond." In turn, the Charlie Sheen vehicle warmed up audiences for "The Big Bang Theory" until it could stand on its own.

But ABC didn't have a blockbuster sitcom to play big brother. Instead, it made the bold move of introducing a block of four new sitcoms. This almost unprecedented strategy has paid off. While the network yanked "Hank," Kelsey Grammer's halfhearted effort, after just a couple weeks, the rest of the lineup —"The Middle," "Modern Family" and "Cougar Town" — already has been renewed for second seasons.

"The thing I'm proudest of is that we've been self-starters," said Steven Levitan, co-creator of "Modern." He last got a taste of success with "Just Shoot Me!", which debuted after "Frasier" and later followed "Will & Grace."

"We haven't been handed a single viewer on a silver platter."

Ty Burrell plays a father on "Modern Family" who desperately wants to be perceived as cool by his wife and three children. He thinks the show has edge, but its habit of closing on a sentimental note has found favor with viewers.

"People are nervous to show sentiment in comedy because it's the quickest thing to be made fun of," he said. "I mean, my character could come across as a jerk, but he's so well intended and his heart is in the right place. For some reason, that's strangely risky, but it's paid off."

Now you know

'Modern Family'

The ABC sitcom airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on KAKE, Channel 10.