Of all the great characters on Modern Family, Phil Dunphy is consistently the most entertaining. His combination of goofiness and good-natured delusion also make him possibly the most likable character currently on TV.
Like many of the characters on this list, Phil is a twist on an old stereotype. The “doofus dad” has been portrayed countless times, but the Modern Family writers gave Phil a unique combination of other characteristics.
Phil has the admirable goal of trying to be close with his children, but he thinks the only way to do that is to treat them like peers. He thinks he is the cool dad and tries to act hip, but thinks “hip” includes a working knowledge of High School Musical and using slang that went out of style in the 90s, which instead embarrasses his children to no end.
He in many ways has a maturity level on par with his kids, which frustrates his wife but keeps Phil almost constantly in a good mood. Like children, he finds joy in little things that most adults take for granted.
His parenting style and personality are almost always in direct contrast with wife Claire, leading to the majority of the conflict in their storylines. Claire sees problems everywhere, while Phil is cool with almost anything.
The result often is a chain reaction in which things get worse because Claire harps on everything while Phil does nothing. Phil’s laid-back nature in general has a tendency to cause problems, and he doesn’t even realize there’s an issue until it’s too late.
As the old saying goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” While the Hell bit may be a little intense for this comparison, the general concept fits Phil perfectly.
Phil always means well. Whether he’s doing something for his kids, his wife, Jay or (especially) Gloria, he’s trying to be helpful or encouraging. But things almost always go wrong. Much of the character’s humor comes from him trying to recover from his various mistakes, especially because things tend to go from bad to worse.
He doesn’t think anything through, so he doesn’t even consider the possible consequences of his actions until they’ve occurred. Then he always feels the need to fix things, which again makes things worse.
Every episode of a TV show is supposed to feature conflict that escalates throughout the episode, which makes Phil a script writer’s dream. Everything about him lends itself to escalated conflict, which is why he is so often involved in the A plot. He never seems to fully grasp what’s going on, but everything is still hilarious because he’s so damn likable.
The credit for that goes to Ty Burrell, who is one of several Modern Family actors who have had breakout performances. Burrell seems to have fully inhabited Phil’s skin. His delivery of almost every line shows a kind of youthful naiveté, and his face lights up at the simplest joys.
Phil can be dense, easily confused and clumsy, and Burrell plays all of those characteristics exceptionally well. Whenever Phil gets in trouble (which is a lot), Burrell channels his inner child in trying to make everything better.
Just as Rico Rodriguez is always believable as the old soul in a child’s body, Burrell always nails the opposite. Never has an immature parent been so entertaining.
Programming Note: Modern Family can be seen at 9/8c Wednesdays on ABC.
TV’s Top 10 Characters
10 – Stewie Griffin
9 – Sterling Archer
8 – Chuck Bartowski
7 – Manny Delgado
6 – Dexter Morgan
5 – Barney Stinson
4 – Don Draper
3 – Abed Nadir
2 – Phil Dunphy
1 – Ron Swanson
Honorable Mention – April 1