This week’s episode of Modern Family either just gave Skepticism a national platform of nearly unprecedented size and importance…or it swung and missed in its attempt to do just that.
I’m just not sure.
Here’s the setup. In a secondary twist to a B plotline, bombshell new mom Gloria (Sofia Vergara) takes her step-granddaughter Alex (Ariel Winter) to see a psychic.
Alex is the show’s precociously intellectual character, a teenage scientific savant, and she makes it clear through cutaway comments (the show uses the mock documentary format popularized by The Office) that she finds the whole idea of psychics to be ludicrous and insulting. She plays along, planning to eventually show Gloria the stupidity of her beleifs.
So, when the psychic says that Alex is about to meet a new love interest, Alex gets her to confidently confirm that this meeting will take place at the upcoming renaissance fair that Alex will be attending (and then, in a cutaway, Alex confidently explains that there is no renaissance fair and, if there were, she wouldn’t be caught dead there).
This goes on for a bit, with Alex smugly asserting her intention to disclose the whole ruse to Gloria. But then…
The psychic begins to talk to Gloria about her dead grandmother (Gloria gets her to confirm she’s talking to the one who smokes cigars, and not pipes – admittedly a hilarious line). And Gloria obviously takes great comfort in what she’s hearing. Suddenly Alex, seeing the positive emotional effect this nonsense is having on Gloria, clams up, smiles and says she now ‘believes,’ or words to that effect.
Sooooooo, what to make of this brief bit of skeptical enlightenment?
On the one hand, it’s clear from the scene that this so-called psychic is nothing but a con artist. Her predictions of Alex’s fate, and the confirmations she receives from the girl, definitely show how absurd the whole premise is. And even her back and forth with Gloria clearly shows how cold readings work – it’s an extreme case, as Gloria so obviously sets herself up for the conclusions the psychic makes – but it’s still pretty obvious how the “trick” is being done.
But the denouement is really troubling. It plays into the whole “what’s the harm?” philosophy that so many people adopt towards things like psychic readings. After all, if Gloria was comforted by what she heard, what does it hurt?
Well it can hurt a lot – financially and emotionally. And when frauds and charlatans mislead people about what their poor dead relatives or friends are thinking or doing in some imagined afterlife, people are hurt all the time.
So, I’m hoping people took more away from the debunking part of the scene, and that they did not take away that such readings are somehow therapeutic or helpful or emotionally satisfying.