The Dunphys (et al.) have gone digital. In the Feb. 25 episode of the ABC comedy “Modern Family,” Claire Dunphy will try to track down her daughter Haley in the wake of an argument. Sounds like a standard plot, but here’s the catch: The episode will take place on Claire’s laptop screen. “Claire, about to board a flight, must rely on her laptop to get in touch with her immediate and extended family -- who pop up via their own computers or smartphones -- for help in finding Haley,” explains the Associated Press. What’s more: The episode was primarily shot on the iPhone 6 or new iPads, according to “Modern Family” executive producer and co-creator Steve Levitan.
Is this a gimmick? Of course. It’s a contrivance on par with a popular show doing a live episode (“ER,” “The West Wing,”“30 Rock”) or turning to song (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Scrubs,” “Grey’s Anatomy”). “Modern Family” is midway through its sixth season. After five consecutive years of nominations for the best comedy series Golden Globe (including a win in 2012), the show was snubbed in the most recent Globes cycle. Next week’s ode to Apple seems to be a way to breathe new life (and new publicity?) into the aging series.
Is it unique? Of course not. Back in the day, there was “Dawson’s Desktop,” a website that accompanied the show “Dawson’s Creek;” the Los Angeles Times explained in 1999 that “users peruse Dawson's fictionalized personal computer screen, fans can sneak a look at Dawson's multimedia journal and homework files, surf his bookmarked Web sites and listen to his CDs.” The year 2000 brought “e,” a novel written entirely in e-mails. Levitan highlighted the short film “Noah,” which takes place on a computer screen, as giving him “proof of concept.”
Is it heavy-handed? Sure seems so. Effectively translating new forms of communication into entertainment is a challenge for any depiction of modern life. Indeed, technology has long been part of “Modern Family.” Four years ago, a New York Times article declared: “The characters in ‘Modern Family’ are so immersed in technology that nearly every scene is refracted through a digital funhouse: an iPad screen, a cellphone camera, a baby monitor, a YouTube video. Characters spend half their time glancing past one another rather than communicating directly.” Next week’s episode sounds like all that on steroids -- with a hand-crafted replica of an Apple interface and “extra jokes that you won’t catch on in first viewing.”
But “Modern Family” is not a particularly subtle show. The comedy hits you over the head so hard that you forget to consider the source of the blow. In March 2012, Christian Toto wrote of the series -- which features a gay couple and their adopted Vietnamese daughter -- on conservative website Breitbart.com, “The show isn’t interested in stepping atop any soapboxes.” During the presidential election campaign, Ann Romney suggested that “Modern Family” was her favorite show, leading Levitan to “offer her the role of officiant at Mitch & Cam's wedding. As soon as it's legal.” Point taken. The Obamas are also apparently fans. (And that wedding did occur at the end of Season 5.)
Indeed, it’s precisely the combination of gimmicky heavy-handedness and rehashed creativity that stands to make next week's episode potentially powerful. Here's an unabashedly mainstream show being infused with poignant realism. Many of our lives do unfold largely on screens. Our devices are at once sets and props and characters and the means by which we document the stories of our lives. And next week a network series will nod to that -- or at least send an emoji wink.
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