Does Modern Family Have a Looming Two and A Half Men Problem?

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Before the latest version of the CharlieSheenClusterfuck™ was unleashed, the most widespread joke on the internet about the veteran star’s long-running CBS hit was that Chuck Lorre never got around to changing the title to Three Men.

While Modern Family doesn’t quite have an expiration date built into the title, and remains a more carefully crafted and nuanced series than Two and a Half Men, I sometimes wonder how the tide of the show will shift as the years progress. I also question how much ABC will try to squeeze out of its megahit cash cow before the dynamic family humor runs dry.

When Two and a Half Men premiered in 2003, the “half” referred to ten-year-old Angus T. Jones, who plays the son of Jon Cryer’s nebbish Alan and the nephew of Sheen’s hedonist Charlie. Now in his eighth season as Jake Harper, Jones’ character has matured from a lazy, smart-mouthed fifth grader… to a lazy, smart-mouthed seventeen-year-old.

Modern Family, both fortunately and unfortunately, may not have the option of keeping its child characters so static.

This past Tuesday, TVLine’s Michael Ausiello revealed that the show was already in the market to recast Mitchell and Cameron’s adopted baby Lily, played by twins Ella and Jaden Hiller, for when the toddler begins to have speaking storylines. “Whether our present ‘Lilies’ age into the role or we end up needing to find new little ones [is a question that will soon need answering],” explained executive producer Steve Levitan. “It is coming to be time.”

While it’s understandable that by the third season the writers might be ready to reveal Lily as a character rather than keep her as a set piece (after all, she can’t remain Maggie Simpson-age forever), fans of the show may be reticent to lose the Hiller twins, as their tranquil, almost Zen demeanor often humorously offsets the neurotic antics and personalities of Lily’s onscreen daddies.

It’s commonly perceived that seven is a magic number in television. Even for most series lucky enough to make it out of the first season alive, being cut at four or five still feels like being shortchanged (Heck, even Arrested Development couldn’t even make it past three.) Seven is solid place — a strong run, and anything more than that, well, you go, girl!

For Modern Family to make it to seven, even five season, the kids — who are just as important players as the adults — will be well into their early adulthood. Rebellious teen Haley Dunphy will be in her twenties by then (as actress Sarah Hyland nears her thirties.) Her precocious, overachieving tween sister Alex (Ariel Winter) will be already be in college and adorably dim younger brother Luke (Nolan Gould) will be close to graduating high school (hopefully, that is). While it’s easy to imagine how the writers may work around the maturation of the Dunphy kids, it’s harder to project how they will be able progress Rico Rodriguez’s Manny Delgado — an old soul trapped in the body of a twelve-year-old boy — when the dichotomy between his flourishing, romantic nature and husky boyishness diminishes. (At worse, I fear he may come to resemble a sitcom version of Oscar Wao.)

So what is Modern Family to do when half of its cast becomes unrecognizable to the audience? It’s been eye-opening enough watching dweeby Alex blossom into a beautiful adolescent dealing with her own popularity and boy issues this season, or even noticing how much Gould and Rodriguez’s voices have deepened only in the past year. Will the writers become desperate enough to pull a Cousin Oliver and make Sofia Vergara’s Gloria surprise her older husband with a baby? Or worse, a Father of the Bride Part II and get her and Claire pregnant at the same time for a classic Hijinks Ensue?

I have the utmost confidence that the Modern Family staff will see fit to grow its show as its younger cast matures. But I’d much rather see this gem of a show end on a bang rather than a whimper… and knowing the network system, ABC it may not want to let go the Dunphys, Pritchetts, and Pritchett-Tuckers go when the time comes to pull the plug properly. (Just ask The Brady Brides.)

Robyn Bahr is an L.A.-based writer/comedy nerd/self-deprecating Jew. She tweets about robot feminism and the ghost of Phil Hartman.