After your series wins four consecutive Best Comedy Emmys, it is bound to get some backlash. One of the most egregious criticisms of Modern Family was how the writers often wrapped up the episodes in a sweet, sentimental bow with gooey truisms about family values and being together. The writers responded to these critic assessments and now use a concluding, feel-good voice-over monologue more sparingly. However, the cutting criticism missed one of the elements of the Emmy-winning comedy that makes it so special. The room that Modern Family saves for tender moments show how frequently a dramatically satisfying and deeply moving television series it really is.
The key to making this episode work is Ariel Winter, the young actor who plays Alex Dunphy. Being the most introverted character in a zany ensemble comedy has, historically, made it hard to really appreciate Alex. Beyond her incessant need to study and be a straight-A student, there have not been many instantly memorable Alex-centric moments (although a recent one was her heartwarming eulogy in the season four finale). Episode writer Elaine Ko cleverly opens up the bookworm’s cave this week with Alex’s realization that her overachieving ways may be hurting her more than helping.
For Alex Dunphy, these are the days where it never rains but it pours. Her Sweet 16 party turns sour quickly, as she has a meltdown in front of her birthday candles. She doesn’t even stop to make a wish and halts her family’s “Happy Birthday” rendition as that would take away valuable study time for the SATs. Alex’s flipping out opens the episode on an off note, since it is hard to find amusement with a mood-swinging, cake-mashing teenager. Thankfully, in the next scene, Alex realizes that her hysterical episode needs to be worked out and she decides to see a therapist.
For a series that has had its issues balancing out the minutes of a 21-minute episode to fulfill a plausible, cohesive storyline for its 11 principal characters, it was terrific to see Alex get the deepest focus this week. Her moments with the psychologist (played by winsome character actor John Benjamin Hickey) are rather effective and it’s refreshing to see Modern Family frame the dynamic in the sessions as one where it is Alex who sees the error of her ways, rather than the psychologist prescribing his own mantra.
Winter is adept at navigating her character’s dilemma and she brings a moving, realized performance that makes her the episode’s MVP. Alex is worried about having another meltdown at a more pivotal moment in her life and she is bothered that her overachieving ways are setting her back. She knows that her main family – typical and unfocused on pushing their daughter to reach these high grades – are not the cause of her anxiety; instead, it is her own frigid expectations. Any person with early signs of aptitude at school can easily relate to Alex’s emotional journey here, since these initial signs can lead to a life of trying to fulfill the lofty expectations that one initially has. It is bitterly honest territory for the character, and under Ko’s sensitive writing and Winter’s nuanced turn, it proves to be a terrific dramatic storyline for the comedy series.