The Office and Modern Family are very different sitcoms, but they share one key aspect in common, and it bothered members of the NBC series.
The Office writers and crew members weren’t too fond of the storytelling format used by Modern Family when the sitcom debuted on ABC in 2009. Like the NBC series from Greg Daniels, Modern Family used a documentary as a plot device to push the story along. Both series were major hits for their respective networks with admirable broadcast runs, but only one took the time to explain the filming format.
The Office had a four-year headstart on Modern Family by premiering in the spring of 2005. Though not an instant hit, the series centered on manager Michael Scott and his employees at a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, eventually found its footing. While mirroring the UK show of the same name, The Office relied on a mockumentary format highlighted by characters adding context to situations through “talking heads.” When Modern Family hit ABC in 2009, The Office was heading into the sixth season. While fellow mockumentary Parks & Recreation shared the same network, Modern Family emerged as a key rival, especially due to the similar use of the documentary-style genre.
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When Daniels and Mike Schur developed Parks & Rec, there was initial interest to make the new sitcom an official spinoff of The Office. That didn’t happen, but the political satire sitcom did borrow the mockumentary format, but they put their own intimate spin of the film method. Modern Family, on the other hand, followed The Office‘s techniques, especially when it came to the reliance on talking heads. According to Andy Greene’s book, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s, some figures involved in the production of The Office weren’t fans of Modern Family‘s decision to use the mockumentary style. That feeling was reiterated when co-creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan failed to explain the presence of the documentary crew in the ABC series.
Critic Alan Sepinwall bluntly explained in Greene’s book that “Modern Family shamelessly copied The Office.” Whether or not that was completely true, members of The Office staff were bothered with ABC’s use of the mockumentary format without an explanation. The Office eventually explained Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch was being filmed for a documentary to follow the everyday lives of an ordinary workplace. While it was never explained in Parks & Rec, there was a presumption the group in Pawnee was being centered for a documentary for similar reasons. Granted, the situation surrounding Modern Family was a little more random, begging the question of why the extended multi-generational family from California was being filmed with talking heads?
Writer Aaron Shure explained how much effort The Office put into the reasoning for the cameras being present before stating how “Modern Family came along and did all the same stuff we did with zero justification.” Producer Ben Silverman shared that sentiment, adding how bummed he was because he had hoped for a family-focused Office spinoff before Modern Family came to fruition. Modern Family co-creator Levitan had stated it never felt right to explain why the Pritchetts and Dunphys were being filmed, but the crew from The Office probably felt differently.
According to producer Teri Weinberg in Greene’s book, Modern Family was originally pitched to NBC before finding a home at ABC. It was also offered with a reasoning for the documentary, explaining that it centered on an exchange student filming his personal experiences around the family he lived with. Because of The Office and its mockumentary style, NBC passed on the idea, especially with an interest in spinoffs. Even though Modern Family altered the foundation of the series, it didn’t scrap the filming format. In the end, the mockumentary worked for both series, but The Office at least took the time to use the concept as a payoff to the plot.
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