The Surprisingly Real Los Angeles of Modern Family

Slate's Culture Blog
March 13 2014 3:09 PM

The Surprisingly Real Los Angeles of Modern Family

modern_family_office
Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) occupies the author's office.

ABC

Mitchell Pritchett has taken over my office. I mean that literally, or as literally as possible when one is discussing a fictional character. If you watch last week’s episode of ABC’s Modern Family, you’ll see Mitch start a new job at the Center for Justice. They give him an office with an exposed brick wall, the office in which he finds several intriguing notes left in the desk drawer by the previous occupant. But in real life, the previous occupant of that room was me. (I recently moved to another office that also appears briefly in these scenes; it’s the one to the right of the vending machine, a machine that, sadly, they only brought in for the shoot.)

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

This is the second time Modern Family has shot a scene in the West L.A.-area audio facility where I rent an office—the first involved Claire making a memorable appearance on a talk radio program. But my experience of interacting with the make-believe Pritchett and Dunphy families is hardly unique in this part of town. If you live or work in West L.A., you’ve probably had a few Modern Family encounters of your own. And if you live around here and watch the show, it’s easy to forget these people are fictional. They feel like real neighbors who inhabit the same world we do, much more so than any other TV show I’ve ever seen.

They’ve filmed at my daughter’s middle school, and Luke and Manny currently attend the public high school (Pali) that they’d probably attend if they were, you know, real people. The Pritchett and Dunphy kids use the playground and sports facilities at the same park we do. Claire’s firing range is in a strip mall that is walking distance from my house (although that particular business does not exist), and the intersection where she tried to get a stop sign installed is one I pass through every day on my bike ride to work (thankfully, it already has a four-way stop). We also regularly see the MF crew as they shoot driving scenes—which involve complicated rigs in front of the characters’ car—all over the local streets.

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But what most binds the show to this specific place is the characters’ homes. Any regular viewer knows these exteriors: Phil and Claire’s Pottery Barn-esque suburban house, Mitch and Cam’s Spanish-style duplex, and Jay and Gloria’s architecturally-sculpted modern mansion. The buildings are essentially characters themselves. (The Dunphys’ house is actually on the market at the moment, although the $2.3 million price seems to reflect its newfound celebrity status. And here’s a handy tip for L.A. visitors wanting to spot TV stars: Those houses conveniently never move.)

So if you live or work in this area, the physical geography of Modern Family actually makes sense. More importantly, though, the cultural geography feels right as well. That may sound unremarkable, especially for a city that’s been used as the backdrop for too many movies and TV shows to count, but it’s actually quite rare. Think about the Los Angeles this show presents. None of the main characters works in the entertainment industry. Two of the three families are portrayed as middle class, and Jay’s wealth comes not from Hollywood or hedge funds, but from a closet company. The city is not presented as a dystopian hellscape, a gang-riddled slum, or a hedonistic lotus land just begging for its earth-shaking, flame-engulfed comeuppance from a disgusted God. It’s just a place where normal Americans lead normal lives, albeit one with better weather.

I know those outside of L.A. enjoy mocking our extremes, and as a native I can’t deny they exist. But they’re not the norm. If you want to know what life in West L.A. is really like, it’s much closer to Modern Family than Entourage—I meet many more parents like Mitch and Cam at schools and grocery stores than I do Turtles or Johnny Dramas. There are a lot more real estate agents like Phil than talent agents like Ari Gold. The most ubiquitous cars are Camrys and Priuses, not $200,000 Ferraris and 1966 Lincoln Continentals.

Modern Family’s co-creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd chose to find humor in the prosaic reality of life here, and I think the honesty of the characters and their world is precisely why the show is so funny—and such a big hit. If Mitch ever wants to borrow my office again, he’s more than welcome.

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

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