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Can We Talk About Last Week's Unusually Excellent Episode of 'Modern Family'?

By Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | January 20, 2014 | Comments ()


Future-job-modern-family-alex.jpg

I want to make sure that I’m not alone in this, because I watched last week’s episode of Modern Family twice, once alone, and once with Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate so that she could confirm that I was not indeed being crazy: It was a really strong episode, wasn’t it?

It was particularly noteworthy because Modern Family — which has managed to hold on to ratings high enough to make it the second highest rated comedy on television — has nevertheless lost much of its cultural relevancy. It’s not what it was in the first or even second season, evolving from a novel, entertaining, occasionally touching and often hilarious exploration of non-traditional families into a comfort, passive sitcom, something we often use as background noise. It’s no longer must-see television, and I admit that I’ve missed a few episodes here and there, or only half paid attention to others (I actually fell asleep watching the episode from two weeks ago).

So, it was a pleasant surprise to see that “Under Pressure” actually tackled a substantive issue in a way that resonated. No, I’m not talking about Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as a smug environmentalist (which was typically Eisenbergian) nor Jane Krakowski’s role as a bullying helicopter parent who got into a weird dodgeball fight with Gloria.

I am referring to Alex’s heavier plotline with a therapist played by John Benjamin Hickey, who managed to dig into some real issues about the alienation Alex feels for being the family’s lone overachiever. The episode wasn’t just an indictment of the stresses and pressures that the college admissions process forces onto teenagers, but it successfully tapped into the weight and expectations that teenagers create for themselves.

Alex’s meltdown during her 16th birthday party — in the midst of studying for the SATs — was initially played for laughs, but when she sat down with a therapist, it was apparent that the stresses that she placed upon herself to do well in school and get accepted into a great college had taken their toll. She opened up to her therapist, and for two or three scenes, Modern Family completely shifted tonally. It was hard for many viewers at home not to sympathize with Alex, both as a parents and as people who might have been in a similar position during our own teenage years.

It is an alienating experience, and while even the best of parents can offer words of encouragement, few can empathize, and so — after spending a few hours experiencing what Alex felt — Claire expressed a note of understanding. It was all that Alex needed to know that she wasn’t completely alone.

It was a surprisingly poignant moment for Modern Family that felt more earned than manufactured, as opposed to many of the contrived voiceover scenes that arrive at the end of the many of the sitcom’s formulaic episodes. It felt honest, and while we like to mock the kids on Modern Family for being exceptionally bad actors, Ariel Winters — whose character motivations to me are often shaded by her real-life drama with her own mother — delivered an unusually genuine and powerful moment, especially for an episode that featured Jane Krakowski doing mid-air splits to avoid being hit by a dodgeball.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Seve

    I feel exactly like Alex everyday. I'm a high school student from the Philippines. Me and my brother are known to be the weird overachievers of the family, the ones that study too hard and stuff. But when my brother left for University, I was left here alone. I got all As in my report card which is pretty rare considering I'm in an asian country, especially since teachers here are very tough on their students. Once I started overachieving to keep it up, people started expecting things from me. My teachers always expected me to always present amazing school projects, and my classmates would always be shocked if I wasn't the highest on a test.

    While I watched this particular episode focussing on Alex it brought me to tears, letting me know that I wasn't alone.

  • Sarah Weissman

    This write-up made me watch it. Also, nice to see a realistic and kind therapist, especially one working with a teen. They've gotten some bad raps in tv and film.

  • kirbyjay

    I don't understand all of the Manny and Modern Family hate. I find them all quite likable and that beats the hell out of watching a show where you hate everyone ( The Sopranos, MadMen). Before we all get all bazerko, I'm not saying that these shows aren't incredibly well written and acted series, I'm just saying that I like to have at least one character in a show that I don't want to get eaten by zombies (Darryl).

  • RilesSD

    I don't get the Manny hate either. The kid is just a romantic.

  • John

    Yeah ya'll lay off Manny before Gloria puts the Columbian necktie on your sorry asses !!

  • Zachary Johnston

    I've been waiting for this! I couldn't believe there wasn't any other coverage of this episode. I usually have it on in the background while I work, but this ep pulled me in with Alex. I made be feel feels! I also couldn't believe they were playing straight with her the whole time. Kinda refreshing.

  • Dave Dorris

    "It’s not what it was in the first or even second season, evolving from a novel, entertaining, occasionally touching and often hilarious exploration of non-traditional families into a comfort, passive sitcom, something we often use as background noise."

    While maybe not a great thing in terms of TV comedy, this is a pretty fantastic thing in terms of society. I would argue. There is still a gay couple who adopted a little girl, it's popular, and pretty much nobody bitches about it.

  • tjedison

    Julie Bowen has the best ponytail on television.

  • ZizoAH

    I cried which surprised me a lot (I think it's the first time for me in Modern Family), I really didn't expect it. Both Ariel Winter and Andrea Bowen were great in that scene.

  • steven wiser

    I got really really teary eyed at the end. Probably because i so wish every once in awhile, even back in high school I wished that one of my parents would stop and say that. Shit is hard and sometimes I think parents thinks it's their responsibility to push you so won't fail. But sometimes you just need someone to empathize with you and say I get it.

  • Me too! It was so fast - laughing one sec, then huge lump all of a sudden and "something in my eye." That was a surprisingly well-done, touching scene.

    I liked, also, that the show highlighted what a factory high school becomes for overachievers... and it's not even high school anymore: down through middle school, grade school and right down into kindergarten/pre-school, we drill into them that if they miss a step, they'll never catch up. There is so much more to growing up and being a PERSON than just study-study-study, win-win-win. It's like we're not content until they're as burned out and stressed out as adults. Not their JOB to be adults.

  • John

    Lemondrop just said it best !!
    There are so many episodes that have you laughing out loud one minute and crying the next. I don't think it has ever gone downhill or missed a step, can't understand how others say this.

  • Thanks! I DO find it enjoyable, despite some hacky bits on which the writers tend to over-rely. Never got the HATE for the show, but at the same time, there are definitely shows out there (such as my beloved "It's Always Sunny..") that take a lot more chances and deserve the comedy laurels that Modern Family always sweeps up.

  • John

    So true, I heard recently that MoF won an award 4yrs. in a row. I do think they should give awards to other comedies that are also well-deserving. I love Always Sunny but haven't seen it as much as I should, also Wilfred is a brilliant, cutting edge comedy that I don't think has ever been considered.

  • Yocean

    Yeah. I grew up in Japan and it has been like that there for a long while now. It is a country where Over Worked Death is a thing. They go to school, then go to clam school, then memorize everything to get into good middle school, high school, which lead to good university which decide which rail of life you will be on. I had a tutor when i was 12 to get into some Middle-School High School all in one academy that was attached to a national university, because I wanted to get away from the public school where I was bullied and did not wish to go to same school with them, and very much had this break down. I missed the entrance exam thanks to the breakdown - was made fun of by other kids- but I ended up going to another more liberal Christian private academy and had a lot of fun there. My grandmother would not recognize any score less than 80 out of 100 and I set up a system with my parents that I get certain amount of allowance depending on the scores I get. The nice thing about the Japanese school is that there are no additional pressure of being popular as well when popular kids are also the smart kids. Yeah, the sports kids were popular too, but the pressure was not as strong as it seems to be here. In the end, I detested going to Japanese university where you learn how to slack off before you are expected to work to death (at least it did not seem like places where I can learn things). and opted for American university. I got into UC Berkeley, after transferring, as my parents wished. That school made me cry, because I was terrible with academic essays, even though I am a writer now. Japanese memorization heavy testing system did not prepare me for that. I got near picture memory and high IQ and a constant reader, so most things I remember once but man, essays were haaaaaaard.

    Anyways, I got off the rail a bit. Great episode!

  • I'm sort of wistful at your mention of the smart kids being the popular ones.... but I get what you're saying. Glad you survived the pressure cooker!

  • Yocean

    Aw thanks. The sad part is the pressure cooker continues throughout working life. My girlfriend in Japan was so overworked she literally could not move anymore, her entire body was hit by great pain and had to be hospitalized ( they still dont exactly know what caused it, some combination of early rheumatism and muscle string pain disease or something) before she finally quit. She could not be there for her grandfather passing away and her boss, horrible woman who would take break for herself and made her work for her ballet classes, administrations for both the ballet and her husband's music school told my GF that she should feel lucky to have been able to attend the funeral of grandfather (who's last words were "get my granddaughter out from Tokyo and back") and she should expect to not be there for her parents' death with the job. Sadly these cases of companies and bosses abusing employees to death is not uncommon in Japan and people tend to let the relationship end rather than suing the abusers. It's a dark part of Japan.

  • Danny

    Having gone through a very similar breakdown 2 years as a college sophomore, I though the Alex storyline was great. The show doesn't normally go into deeper stuff, choosing to replay the same jokes and gags over again, but I think trying different things and not always needing a storyline to be joke-heavy could be the show's best chance at a return to higher quality.

  • foca9

    Haven’t watched Modern Family in four or five episodes—mainly because of the reasons you mention—but I’ll probably watch these last ones now! Alex is even my favourite, mostly since in many ways I am like her (although I’m not in high school nor a girl), so I this sounds very interesting to me.

    On the other side, I guess the show’s back at normal next week.

  • After we all learned all about the actual family situation of Ariel Winter, something about seeing her cry and hug her TV mom broke my heart. Because she's clearly not had many chances to do that with her crazy birth mother.

  • So true. Knowing what we know definitely made the moment more poignant. Even though her sister seems less crazy and horrible than Mom - of course, this is only judging off the celeb news/gossip POV we're allowed - she seems ill-equipped to "mother" a vulnerable teenage girl... not all that grown-up yet, herself.

  • sainthubbins

    The Alex section really was different, and much better, than the show has been. It really resonated with me, too. I'm a PhD student in engineering, and I'm still struggling with some of those expectations that I set for myself back in high school, before I really even knew who I was.

  • randomhookup

    "Exceptionally bad actors"? Did you ever watch an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager?

  • Even people that have shown they can act in other projects! SLOTAT was the worst.

  • randomhookup

    The Seventh Heaven School of Acting.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Just read the lines and then sort of make a face. Or not. Just don't look like you've ever considered sex except shamefully.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    Yeah, but Manny is still the worst, right?

  • The one from two weeks ago? With Manny Facebook stalking a girl and hiding stuff she likes in the pockets of her coat she left at his house? No. Nope nope nope. Creepy little freak.

  • Danny

    The worst part was Gloria and others encouraging him. How did no one point out how weird the whole thing was? Manny is going to be a serial killer when he grows up.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I'm envisioning his spin-off as Dexter meets HIMYM, where his kids are in fact the abducted children of his most recent victim. Sure, they're forced to listen to how he's stalked and murdered dozens of women over the course of his life, including their mother, and sure they're chained to a couch, but damn if Manny doesn't make the best hot cocoa this side of... like, what's a really good hot cocoa place?

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    This side of the Polar Express?

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Yes!

  • pajiba

    Always, brother. Always.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Mr. Julien watched it alone and then had me sit down and watch it with him.

  • e jerry powell

    And Julien fils?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Trop young.

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