The question every sitcom fan has to answer for himself is: How important is it for a sitcom to be funny? Well, I guess I should say how important is it for every episode of a sitcom to be funny, because there are plenty of shows that are pleasant to watch even when the laughs are sparse (“hang-out shows,” as VanDerWerff likes to call them.) But like humor itself, that’s subjective. There are presumably some Modern Family viewers so in love with these characters that it doesn’t matter much what they’re doing, or how funny they’re being from one episode—or one scene—to the next.
I suspect that’s what has made season 5 of Modern Family so divisive. The show is doing what it’s always done, staying true to its characters and guiding them through progressions that feel logical and assured. If I liked the characters enough, and I see how someone could, I’d be plenty satisfied with this season. Unfortunately, it’s not enough for this humble reviewer. I need Modern Family to be funny, and it doesn’t make me laugh the way it did in its first three seasons.
That’s what made “Under Pressure” such an unexpected surprise. It’s not one of the show’s funniest episodes by a long shot, and is about on par with the rest of the season in that regard. But it had some beats that made me smile, and an atypically emotional Alex story that elevated it and lent it some grit. I’m not sure it’s a trick Modern Family could pull off every week without redefining the essence of the show, but as a one-off, “Under Pressure” was livelier than it had any right to be.
The episode found the family scattered in a bunch of tiny plots, with most of the adults corralled at a parent night at the high school, while Manny and Luke dated twins, Mitchell, Haley and Lily dealt with a greener-than-thou neighbor, and Alex booked herself a session with a therapist to get to the root of a birthday meltdown that found her ruining a perfectly good birthday cake. (I’m watching what I eat, like so many New Year’s resolutioners, so watching Alex deface that cake was…tough.)
“Under Pressure” was an overpopulated installment, with Jane Krakowski, Jesse Eisenberg and John Benjamin Hickey dropping in for itsy-bitsy guest spots, but it didn’t feel as unfocused as I’d anticipated because so much of the action was concentrated at the school. It did make the Manny and Luke story feel slight, though I smiled at the reveal that the twins were keen on the opposites-attract pairings. The Mitchell-Haley-Lily story was equally anemic, and while Mitch and Asher’s initial squabble was peppery and fun, the rest of its scenes felt distracting, and the oil spill wasn’t that satisfying.
The goings-on at parent-teacher night didn’t work that much better as comedy, but they worked better as story, especially with Phil and Jay sneaking away to watch the game together. Phil’s moments of recognition from Jay are few and far between, so it was nice to see the tech-savant stuff that so often makes Phil the butt of the joke win praise from Jay. Krakowski was appropriately prickly as Dr. Donna Duncan, Gloria’s competition in a teacher flirt-off, but she didn’t have enough time to sell the story and was mostly there to give Gloria something to do.
That brings me to Alex, who got some genuinely affecting scenes working out her role in the Dunphy family with Hickey’s therapist. There’s quite a bit about this story I didn’t like, namely the idea that it would be brought upon by that cake freak-out, which felt surreal and out-of-place (to say nothing of that delicious cake being viciously pawed at.) And having Alex reach her realizations about how lonely she feels in a family that doesn’t understand the pressure she’s under—self-imposed or not—is a story I’d have prefer to see outside the context of a therapist’s office, which felt too literal.
Still, in a season full of episodes trying to be funny and failing, it was pretty awesome to see Modern Family succeeding with a different tone. There were a couple little quips in Alex’s therapy scenes, but mostly, it was Alex talking through her precarious position within the Dunphy clan, and Ariel Winter ably handled the material.
If the show’s writers were to inject more moments of quiet self-reflection, it would create a tonally different show, and that’s not what I want. But I do want Modern Family to act like a show that’s practically guaranteed a renewal every season. Even if the experiments don’t always succeed, it would go a long way towards eliminating the nagging feeling that the show is content to coast indefinitely simply because it can afford to.