Why Modern Family's "Significant" Death Was a Major Letdown

Producers promised a significant character would die, but in the age of shocking TV deaths, the show didn't deliver.

By Chris Harnick Oct 25, 2018 4:10 PMTags
Modern FamilyABC

Modern Family teased the death of a "significant character" since September 2018, and the moment finally came in "Good Grief," the Wednesday, Oct. 24 episode, which also happened to be the season 10 Halloween installment. But was the character "significant" enough? Spoilers follow.

While on a trip with her friend group, DeDe (Shelley Long) died in her sleep. Long's character was mother to Claire (Julie Bowen) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the ex-wife of Jay (Ed O'Neill). Killing DeDe off makes sense in terms of drama and story, she's a character with deep ties to several characters. Her departure touches the Pritchetts, the Tuckers and the Dunphy family.

The Most Shocking Deaths in Recent TV History

"She's directly involved with three of our characters and she touched everybody's life in some interesting way. It seemed like the right character to put everybody through something. She seemed like right character because she so directly affects so many of our characters," executive producer Steve Levitan told The Hollywood Reporter. Levitan said the writers met at the start of the season to plan out the big arcs and they realized the series hasn't really tackled death, aside from Phil (Ty Burrell) losing his mother.
"[W]e've never seen the entire family have to deal with such a loss. It seemed like an interesting thing to have happen," Levitan said.

TV's Most Shocking Exits: Stars Who Left Hit Shows

Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd started teasing the death in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in September.

"We're handling some bigger life events in this season," Lloyd told EW. "We do deal with a death, which is certainly a topic that families have to deal with, and on television, it's not easy to do because that's a heavy subject. But at the same time, it would seem unusual for a family not to go through it." Lloyd said the death would be a "significant character on the series," and a "moving event" with ripple effects felt for several episodes.

Long's DeDe appeared in seven episodes over the 10-season run, not counting "Good Grief," which featured her voice and likeness.

Savvy viewers immersed in TV immediately marked Long's character for death—it was either DeDe or Jay's dog, Stella, knowing a series like Modern Family would never off one of its main characters in what could be its final season. Sofia Vergara previously said she wasn't worried when she heard about the death and Ferguson also shut down speculation that it would be the dog. He and Eric Stonestreet both joked it could be Ferguson's Mitchell via interviews and tweets, but no, it was DeDe.

Levitan said he was worried by putting it out there that it was a significant character was overreaching.

Modern Family: Crazy Moments

"I was, frankly, a little bit afraid that we, in a weird way, over promised. That people were thinking it's one of our main main regulars, and we would hear some occasional weird theories on that. I guess I think we were all a little bit shocked at how much we've been asked in real life, ‘Who is it?' It really took us by surprise…Maybe [viewers will] be pleasantly surprised that it wasn't one of our regular people, but I hope we don't disappoint, as strange as that sounds, or that they were gearing up for more and say, ‘Oh, is that all?' But it's significant to us. She's a very significant character in so many of our characters' lives that it's still meaningful," Levitan told EW.

Viewers are accustomed to the shocking TV twist. We live in the age of Game of Thrones where nobody is safe, in the age of Grey's Anatomy killing off Patrick Dempsey, in the age of The Good Wife shattering shippers' hearts by ending Josh Charles' character's life, the age of Roseanne Conner dying of an opioid overdose on The Conners. Maybe we're too used to shocking deaths and that's why DeDe's demise doesn't immediately feel as significant as the writers had hoped.

Regardless, the deed is done. The ripple effects on Modern Family aren't in the next few episodes, he said, but they are coming. Specifically, viewers will see Mitchell and Claire deal with DeDe's ashes, which are now part of a new tree's root ball.

Modern Family airs Wednesdays, 9 p.m. on ABC.