It takes a self-assured comedy to end a season with a funeral for a character the audience has never met, which is exactly what “Modern Family” does. Wrapping up its fourth season on Wednesday (May 22), the ABC sitcom remains one of TV’s most watched comedies, knowing that, at this point in its run, it can do just about whatever it darn well pleases.
So, the show kills off Grandma Gracie Dunphy, a character we’ve never met and therefore find little to be moved by with her death. Or so it would seem. At the onset of the episode, as the entire Dunphy-Pritchett clan descends upon Florida to mourn, not even the woman’s son or husband seem that torn up about their loss. True, Claire (Julie Bowen) has an aside in the cold open about the death not being unexpected, but the lack of palpable grief from Phil (Ty Burrell) or Frank (guest star Fred Willard) is alarming, especially considering how those two so often really FEEL everything.
But just as the grief sneaks up on Phil, so to does it sneak up on the audience. As part of her last wish, Gracie tasks her son (via note) to set up her newly-widowed husband with a neighbor, Annie Fitzsimmons. It’s only during Phil’s final interaction with the kind neighbor (after a rather hilarious first encounter wherein Claire pretends to be selling vacuums door-to-door), while explaining his mom’s final wish and how it was the last in a lifelong string of actions to care for everyone in her life, that Phil breaks down. Burrell masterfully conveys the sadness and loss Phil has been going through, and it’s here that the audience begins to care about a woman they’ve never known.
It’s not just Phil who’s sent through the ringer during the finale. Alex (Ariel Winter) is dismayed to find that her grandma, whom she thought she had such a special bond with, simply left her an old lighter, but after Frank explains that the card contains more than she thinks (“This is Florida, everything sticks together.”), she discovers it was so much more. All this leads to a very touching moment during the episode’s climax, Gracie’s funeral, when Alex’s voiceover reads the letter. Not only is it revealed that the lighter is tied to Gracie’s first encounter with Frank, but Alex is also encouraged to take a chance every once in a while by the grandmother who, indeed, knew her so well. So, Alex uses to the lighter to set off some fireworks, a reminder of Gracie’s favorite holiday.
There are some other, more inconsequential subplots at play throughout the half-hour. Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) heads to court with Gloria (Sofia Vergara) to help her out of a bench warrant over a case of mistaken prostitution, which seems to exist, largely, to give Mitch a new career in Season 5 (He realizes he misses being in court and decides to quit his job). Elsewhere, Jay (Ed O’Neill) has a run-in with the woman who took his virginity and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) ingratiates himself with a group of women in the retirement community before quickly destroying their friendships.
It’s clear, though, that this episode exists to tell the tale of the Dunphy’s and their grief. And it’s a slyly beautiful half-hour because of it. Since “Modern Family” began its run, its been known for expertly marrying its farcical comedy with a heartfelt celebration of family. “Goodnight, Gracie” is a fine example of that formula, proof that this show has steam to run on for as long as ABC allows it.
What did you think tonight’s finale, “Modern Family” fans?