Television is a unique medium in that the writers and directors are given exponentially more time than any other visual medium to develop their characters and story. Some shows, like Lost and Helix, simply dig deeper and deeper narrative holes for themselves to climb out of in their later seasons, confident that the viewers will be along for the entire ride. I like to say that I’m not a huge fan of this type of writing, but I am hopelessly devoted to at least one of those shows (Hint: it’s not the Syfy original series). Another, more common method of TV writing is what I call the “paint on the wall” method. Most popular serialized shows employ this method, eschewing anything particularly memorable for several seasons of passable, forgettable viewing. This method covers shows like your Law & Order’s, your American Horror Story, and basically every show on USA. These aren’t necessarily two opposite ways of writing, and they’re not the only two types of television. “Paint on the wall” shows tend to have individual standout episodes, and usually benefit from a selected viewing of the best episodes from each season.
One show of this type that has always held a special place in my heart is Modern Family. Even in its fifth season, the writers are still producing one of the most consistently entertaining shows on cable. Designed from the ground up to appeal to the groups that it owes its namesake too, Modern Family is basically this generation’s Full House. The characters are likable, vulnerable, and always teaching each other valuable life lessons, usually just after doing something incredibly humiliating and comical. And like Full House, the average episode is nothing to write home about. It follows traditional sitcom format; there is a misunderstanding, actions taken to fix it, miscommunication, and resolution. Every time I consider removing it from my weekly watch list, I remember how long I’ve been watching, and how deeply it resonates with my own family.
A very recent episode, “Under Pressure”, seemed like just another forgettable twenty-odd minutes. Jane Krakowski (of 30 Rock fame) guest starred, but she wasn’t given much to do other than be shrill and crazy. Jesse Eisenberg was also in a pretty small role, but he was relegated to his usual “douchebag with a heart of gold” archetype. The one standout plot of the episode didn’t involve guest stars at all; it instead focused on the youngest Dunphy daughter, Alex. It’s her sixteenth birthday, but she doesn’t seem happy at all. Precocious as she is, she signs herself up for a meeting with a therapist. I didn’t expect much from this plot, since it’s typical of Modern Family to make Alex seem self-reliant and commanding. However, her meeting with the therapist gets surprisingly personal, and she opens up about her feeling like nobody in her family understands her because she tries so hard to be the best at everything.
I’m not just highlighting this episode because it struck so close to home for me, someone who never felt like he belonged for most of his teenager years. That’s all well and good, but what really struck me was how this was actually a subplot on Modern Family, which usually puts comedy before emotional resonance. There isn’t even a punch line to this subplot. Alex is picked up from her mother at the end of the episode, and they share a tender hug as the credits begin to roll. This dramatic shift from the usual tone of the show caught my attention, and I’ve been a much bigger fan of Alex since then.
Does an episode like “Under Pressure” make Modern Family a better show overall? Not particularly, but it doesn’t have to. For that week, there was nothing better on TV for me. The endless race to be the best, longest-running sitcom on cable is a crowded and pointless one, but touching on delicate subjects like loneliness and growing up one week can really elevate a show’s place in the endless pantheon of “paint on the wall” sitcoms.