”Under Pressure” (Season 5, Episode 12)
So just why is “Under Pressure” my favorite episode of Modern Family?
Just to get this out of the way, everything else outside of Alex's story works well, too (Jay and Lily were particularly funny).
From the moment I found out that this episode had a story about Alex going to therapy (about 12 days before its airing), I couldn't stop going through in my head the multitude of ways this story could play out. Not all of them were good – there was the possibility they could play it totally for laughs, or there was the possibility this could have turned into another “Baby On Board”, where the story just suddenly ended long before the show did.
What we got instead was just about the perfect case scenario. For this one story they checked the comedy at the door and let the serious emotions just play out.
That includes the opening scene at Alex's birthday party: yes, it's tempting to look at her cake mashing as funny, but once you know what she's putting herself through, it is nothing but sad watching her get more and more worked up about getting back to her SAT studying (which had to be just the tip of the iceberg since that was probably one of the easier tests she would take) until she finally explodes.
In the second scene, had Alex not said she wanted to see a therapist, would Phil and/or Claire have suggested she do so (or forced her to see one)? Assuming they were going to punish her for that outburst (they might have anyway) what would they have done? Grounding doesn't seem like much of a punishment (unless they took away her computer, too) since Alex would probably just spend the time doing more studying anyway.
One nitpick about this scene: I'd still like to know how Alex got a same day appointment with (the highly recommended according to her research) Dr. Clark, and on a Saturday, no less. (We know it was on a weekend because the kids weren't in school and there was a football game involved in one of the stories. And I highly doubt a therapist would take Sunday appointments.) And how would she know the sessions would be covered by her parents' insurance, unless she was snooping around?
The first part of her therapy session is more lighthearted than the second (though still fairly serious), as Alex goes off on a mini-rant about Dr. Clark's qualifications, particularly regarding his age, followed by a cute little retort by the doctor, then one of the longest run-on sentences I've heard in ages (reminiscent to me of one of Molly's almost weekly lengthy sentences from The Facts Of Life). It's not often you hear someone say they have both blue index cards and Hillary Clinton's presidential aspirations (among many other things) on their mind in the same sentence. And it's a good thing she took that deep breath beforehand.
And that “limbic system” Alex talked about? It really is a thing, but it would take someone with Alex's intellect to even read the (flawed?) Wikipedia page without having their head spin (I gave up after about two sentences).
I don't know what's scarier – that Alex's AP Physics teacher recommends her students take up to 14 practice tests (the actual test is about 3 hours long) leading up to the actual test, or that there are so many practice tests available to take (her list goes to a number 26 and to a letter h – if each of the 26 number groups has an a,b,c,d,e,f,g, and h test that makes for 208 total practice tests – I would not want that job of writing all those tests). Of course Claire later gets to see another scary view of Alex's workload to come (in fact it's even scarier than she depicts – more on that shortly).
And then there is the emotional center of the episode – the second part of Alex's therapy session, where we get our deepest ever glimpses into what makes her tick. She starts by saying she's been driven to be the best academically from her childhood days, including a desperation to win a spelling bee (from an unmentioned grade level) about which nobody else cared (she did win by correctly spelling “responsibility”, and Dr. Clark uses that word to ask her from where her drive to succeed comes). In the beginning Alex feels she's driven because of her own internal standards, but later realizes that her drive also comes from other people's ("teachers, parents, other kids") expectations, especially once she shows that she is an overachiever.
At first Alex says she's happy about being this way, how it's what's going to get her into a good college and that it defines her. But she then admits that while it's mostly good, it can be exhausting and hard to be her.
The final few questions from Dr. Clark try to probe into how Alex feels she fits in with the rest of her family. Alex is hesitant and downright reluctant to answer (asking at one point what her family has to do with this, because they don't “get” her), but finally admits that she feels alone in her quest to succeed, with little help (and maybe even hindrance) from her family.
When we get back to Claire, she is now in Alex's AP Calculus class, where her teacher takes pride in the fact she “only” gives her students 2 hours of homework a night. Claire takes exception to this, then hijacks the whiteboard to add up all of Alex's homework: 2 hours in AP Calculus, 1 hour in AP Biology, and 1 ½ hours both in Advanced Literature (I'm not sure if that was an AP class or just a high level class) and AP History, for apparently a total of 6 hours (calculated with a little help from Sanjay's mother, Nina).
However, in actuality, Alex had an even more onerous nightly workload. At first, I wasn't sure whether Claire was confusing her AP Biology class with the AP Physics class she attended. It wasn't until “Sleeper”, when Alex was trying to win a biology scholarship with an essay that it was confirmed that she was actually taking both classes.
So, in reality, not only did she have the 6 hours from the 4 classes Claire wrote on the board, but she had an additional (best guess) 1-2 hours of AP Physics homework added to that (not to mention the previously noted practice tests which I'm guessing she did on weekends, along with probably other practice tests for her other AP classes), which brings us to 7-8 hours of homework five nights a week. That is downright frightening, since that's practically the time spent at a full-time job, except 1) Alex doesn't get paid for it, and 2) Alex still has the 6-7 hours of in-school classes each day before she even gets to go home and do homework.
Is it any wonder Claire couldn't believe Alex wasn't suffering (at the time) a meltdown every day? The final scene with Alex crying and hugging Claire just added a well done touch of heartbreak at the end.
Maybe it happened and we didn't see it, but I'm surprised Claire didn't find herself in the principal's office with the rest of the family after her outburst in that AP Calculus class.
All told this was the best episode ever, with the best Alex story ever, especially the two scenes in the therapist's office. But all of Alex's scenes were incredible.
Obviously, a lot of the reason for this was an absolutely stunning performance from Ariel Winter – she played each scene just about to perfection. I especially loved how well she played a tired teenager in her therapy scenes, her facial and especially verbal expressions showing just how much of a toll her academic life was starting to take upon her, all without going into over-dramatic histrionics, even when she was getting irritated with the questions about Alex's family.
I'm still disappointed that Ariel did not get much serious consideration for an Emmy nomination for her work here – she completely deserved at least a nomination, and I think she deserved to win the award.
Oh, and kudos to Elaine Ko, the writer of this episode, for such a well-done script that gave Alex such a touching story. Hopefully she gets to do the writing when Alex's stories really get going during the second half of this season (fingers very tightly crossed on that one).
The only other wish I had for this episode was that I wished it was a two part episode like the wedding ended up being. They could have easily given us another 10-15 minutes of Alex's therapy (maybe even touching upon her other anxieties).
Two oddities about this episode:
- Alex's AP Physics test was scheduled for May 21st. In real life that was the date of the season finale (“The Wedding, Part 2”). That may or may not have been coincidental.
- Mitch and Cam's house number is 2211 (the building is numbered 2211/2213 – I'm presuming the lower floor has the lower number), but their environmentally friendly (but not otherwise friendly) next-door neighbor Asher's house number is 2331.
And that's that. Well, for now, anyway – I'll probably think of more things to say about this extraordinary episode eventually (there are some negatives that have nothing to do with the episode itself, so I'll save them for another time), especially where it relates to where Alex is now and in the future (of course I've already said a few things about that before).