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All in the families

It’s late on a hot afternoon in August, and the producers of ABC’s new comedy “Modern Family” are debating panties.

The crew is shooting a scene on a Century City soundstage with Ty Burrell, who plays Phil, a suburban dad who can’t stop embarrassing himself or his three kids. At the end of a complicated spat with another family member, Phil winds up covered in ladies’ underwear just as his wife walks in.

Watching the scene on a nearby monitor, Christopher Lloyd, who once ran “Frasier” and is the co-creator and executive producer of “Modern Family,” thinks there may be too much lingerie. He wonders if they can do another take to make the scene-stealing Phil look less like, well, a panty-loving pervert.

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“We’re already doing enough weird stuff with this guy,” Lloyd said.

Indeed, “Modern Family” has to tread a fine line between weird-funny and weird-weird. It’s intended as a family comedy, but it also has to make a strong impression on viewers. It has a lot more riding on it than the usual sitcom. The series will serve as the 9 p.m. anchor of ABC’s risky effort to re-brand Wednesday as its new comedy night. The other entries are also family-themed, including “Hank,” with Kelsey Grammer as a downsized corporate titan, and Patricia Heaton as a harried suburban mom in “The Middle.”

“Modern Family,” though, is already grabbing the most attention. The pilot tested so highly among focus groups that, in May, ABC executives took the unusual step of screening the entire episode to a crowd of advertisers in New York, where it drew favorable reactions.

But few new shows face such a tough battle against prevailing programming trends. Family comedy? Come on. Those things went out with “Malcolm in the Middle.” Thanks to cable and the Internet, families today just don’t watch TV together anymore. The grown-ups watch “30 Rock” or “How I Met Your Mother,” the kids watch “iCarly” or “SpongeBob SquarePants.” It’s also no secret that Americans’ conception of what constitutes “family” has broadened considerably since the white-picket-fence mythos of “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver” reigned in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The producers of “Modern Family” seem to realize the enormity of their task, but they’re hoping ABC can be patient. Because they’re aware what happens when a network is not patient. Their previous project, the newsroom farce “Back to You” starring Heaton and Grammer, aired just 14 episodes before Fox pulled the plug.

“It’s gonna take awhile for people to hear about us and come to it,” Steve Levitan, an affable Midwestern native who made his fortune with “Just Shoot Me” and is now Lloyd’s creative partner, said in his office, which is decorated with pictures of his own family, which serves as one of the show’s ongoing inspirations. He added, “I think we’ll probably get our butts kicked in the ratings for a while.”

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Open secret

“Modern Family” is an ensemble show set in three different households. Phil, a real-estate agent, and his wife, Claire (Julie Bowen), have the traditional nuclear family. There’s a gay couple, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who have just adopted a baby daughter from Vietnam. And then there’s Jay (Ed O’Neill, who rose to fame two decades ago as the loudmouthed shoe salesman Al Bundy in “Married . . . with Children”), a man who’s trying to throw off the indignities of late middle age -- one funny bit from the pilot shows him struggling to rise from a lawn chair at a kids’ soccer game -- by taking a trophy wife (Sofia Vergara).

The pilot’s secret, which the producers had hoped to preserve until the premiere, is that these people are all related; Claire and Mitchell are Jay’s grown kids from a previous marriage. But ABC decided to give away the secret in its early promotions because research showed that otherwise viewers thought “Modern Family” was an anthology show.

Steve McPherson, who runs ABC’s prime time entertainment, said he wanted viewers to have the same reaction hearing about the show that he did when the pilot was pitched. “When (they) told me they were all connected, I was like, ‘Sold! We’ve got to have this show,’ ” he said.

Levitan said he and his colleagues were “very disappointed” that their surprise was spoiled, but they understand why. Besides, they believe the show has plenty of other qualities that help it stand out from the sitcom pack. Chief among them: The use of a “mockumentary” storytelling style, a la NBC’s “The Office.”

“Modern Family” tries to find most of its humor in the margins: Throwaway comments, offhand gestures and a free-floating, well-fortified sense of irony. In that, it strongly resembles “Arrested Development,” the Emmy-winning sitcom about a very warped clan that never managed to find a sufficient audience on Fox but has become a DVD hit.

Levitan understands the comparison but sees a difference. He argues that too many recent comedies are “distancing” -- they invite the audience to laugh at, but not necessarily identify with, the characters. “Modern Family” wants viewers to see these folks as family, which is why it’s so important that no one comes off as, say, a creep who craves panties.

“We embrace the emotion,” Levitan said. “What really gets an audience is, yes, you have to be funny, but people have to care about the characters and the relationships. And that’s a really important part of this show: that people come away feeling something. Laughing, of course. Gotta laugh! But they also feel something.”

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A family tradition

Since the start of commercial TV in the late 1940s, such shows have played a key role for the networks -- and especially the studios, which have relied on lucrative syndicated repeats of sitcoms for much of their revenue. From “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver” to “The Cosby Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” family comedies were valuable because, the thinking went, they had something for everyone, at least one character each viewer could relate to.

But beginning in the late 1980s, network executives stopped wanting to reach everyone. They became much more enamored of young-adult viewers because that’s who advertisers believe are most likely to buy new products. So schedules became filled with comedies focused on the relationships and travails of young urban dwellers, such as “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” Family comedies slowly faded from the network lineups.

“Raymond” ended its run in 2005. “Malcolm in the Middle” -- probably the last true hit comedy centered around a traditional nuclear family -- wrapped a year later. Other recent examples include “The George Lopez Show” and “According to Jim,” now both gone as well. And despite lavish media attention, the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris” never connected with a mass audience and was canceled in May.

Given that most households now contain more than one TV -- many more, if laptops and smart phones count as screens -- it’s unlikely that many families will gather around any given show again, although “American Idol” proves the phenomenon is still possible. So comedy producers are adjusting their development process to encompass Americans’ broadened conception of family.

Nontraditional sitcom families are already on screen: There’s CBS’ smash hit “Two and a Half Men,” which is about a swinging bachelor living with his uptight brother and the brother’s young son. A big part of “Men’s” appeal lies in the tension promised by its setup: A swinging bachelor pad, after all, is really no place for an impressionable kid to be.

This season, the trend toward unusual clans intensifies. CBS’ “Accidentally on Purpose” (8:30 p.m. Monday) has Jenna Elfman as a 30-ish writer who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to keep both the baby and the man. Fox’s “Brothers” (8 p.m. Friday) looks for laughs in the spectacle of two grown brothers -- lifelong rivals -- pushed by their family into a shaky truce. And there’s “Modern Family,” which treats the gay couple in its domestic triptych as purely matter-of-fact.

Steve Sternberg, an independent TV analyst formerly of ad giant Magna, notes that viewers are actually watching more comedy than ever before -- “just not on the broadcast networks,” he wrote in a recent report. Instead, audiences are getting their laughs from cable repeats and DVDs of old shows.

ABC’s McPherson agrees that network comedies have undergone a brutal period of viewer rejection. “Comedy is the hardest medium,” he said. “We’ve had a period where it’s been very difficult to launch comedy.” Still, he believes there’s a “thirst” for new sitcoms, and he promises that ABC will be patient in nurturing “Modern Family.”

Lloyd also believes in that thirst. He keeps faith that the concept of a family comedy may yet have some life in it. Even in a period of media fragmentation, people will still gather around a good show, he reasons.

“People who traditionally sat down to watch family shows tended to be families,” he said. “Then there’s a whole group of people that would not tune into a show like this because they like their ‘Seinfeld’ or their ‘Frasier’ or their ‘Just Shoot Me.’ You know, stuff that’s going to be more adult, a little bit more sophisticated.”

He paused and added: “The idea was that we can maybe hit both groups because we can go both places with this show.”

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scott.collins@latimes.com


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