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

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 20, 2014 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 20, 2014 |

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.


Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.