‘Modern Family’ Was at Its Best When It Went Inside the Machine and Stayed There

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‘Structurally Sound’ is a recurring feature where each week a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series is examined.

“Ugh, the minute they got rid of rotary phones, everything went to hell.”

Modern Family might be a show that many consider to be overstaying its welcome and having seen too much of the spotlight while other critical darlings struggle to scrape by. Regardless of your opinion of the current quality of Modern Family (or really any show in its seventh season), it’s undeniable that the comedy began as a very strong series, is still full of incredible performances, and is still occasionally able to pull off some special, ambitious episodes.

I can’t think of an episode more appropriate for that honor than Modern Family’s sixth season entry, “Connection Lost.” It might make sense that the people responsible for the episode are series creator Steven Levitan and Megan Ganz, one of Community’s strongest writers before migrating to the ABC sitcom. “Connection Lost” is certainly the closest that Modern Family has ever been come to a “concept episode,” as well as the most that the show has ever resembled Community. The episode is without a doubt the most ambitious and stylistic the series has ever gotten, but it’s also widely been seen as the show’s best episode (with it currently sitting with the highest rating for the show, a 9.8, on IMDB). The mass accolades that “Connection Lost” has seen is probably an indication that the series should attempt more departures in form like this, but at the same time, it’s anomalistic nature is perhaps why it stands out so much for audiences in the first place.

Believe it or not, this entire experiment isn’t one big piece of product placement that saw commissioning from Apple. Yes, the conceit here is that the entire episode takes place “within” Claire’s laptop, communicating with her family through her various Apple products and features, and the cast and crew might have even received swank benefits from the company, but that’s all entirely inconsequential. Levitan claims that the episode’s concept organically came to be as he was communicating with his own college-based daughter through his laptop, and the idea spiraling from there. While the heavy corporate shadow does hang heavy above this episode, the style and execution more than make up for any questionable motives that the episode might have. If anything this is the perfect show to use this sort of device, with the series being so focused on keeping this increasingly large family together and in contact.

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While a very lofty premise, this sort of idea has actually become increasingly popular, with recent films like Open Windows and Unfriended playing with the structure. It can be super powerful when done right and justified, rather than when it’s simply coasting off of the fact that it’s a gimmick. It’s a style that can be really poignant, especially when there is something that is trying to be said with it, which is thankfully the case with “Connection Lost.”

Actually pulling off an episode with these sorts of technical restrictions can in fact be a lot more difficult than people realize. In the case of “Connection Lost”, before moving forward with filming, extensive run-throughs were done with crew members to establish a proof of concept and make sure that it could even be done. During this time they would also be troubleshooting and eliminating ways of filming the ceiling or air as “dead time.” Accordingly, a lengthier post-production was needed to transition these video edits together, create the necessary multi-windowed desktop, and have all of these balls moving at once.

The situation that has Claire going into her laptop so thoroughly is that her daughter, Haley, is missing. Due to growing desperation and an unhealthy imagination, Claire turns to each and every device in her possession as a means of locating her lost daughter that she fears might be barreling towards a huge mistake. Claire uses a different piece of her tech to get each additional piece of the puzzle as to where Haley is, and it’s a good reflection of just how plugged in we are and how accustomed we’ve gotten to these shortcuts. For instance, there’s FaceTiming galore here, as Claire frantically grills all of her family members about her missing daughter. Facebook reminds Claire that it’s Mitchell’s birthday, and through the use of a fake account (Brody Kendall, not Scott Baio, contrary to what the image conveys) sees that Haley’s relationship status has changed to “Married.” We see Claire hacking into Haley’s iCloud account to track her phone’s GPS and learn where she is, and with the help of Google Maps, figures outs she’s in Vegas, near a wedding chapel. We even see Alex e-mailing Claire revisions of her college admissions essay to look over (which she promptly ignores).

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A lot of these product uses actually feel smart and motivated, however some, like Claire watching a slideshow of baby pictures of Haley while James Taylor plays on iTunes as she’s feeling nostalgic, feel kind of forced. There are instances where it’s like, “Okay, they just wanted to shoehorn in a use for that,” but on the whole this all works. It’s one thing to have smart uses for all of these products, but it’s another to have them also be such astute reflections of the characters. All of the background touches on Claire’s laptop are perfect, whether it’s her iTunes library, wallpaper selections, or snippets of past e-mails that we see. At this point in history, a desktop really can be a way of getting to understand someone — as crazy as that sounds — and this episode is a production designer’s dream as the Dunphy’s operating systems and set-ups are made to feel eerily authentic.

While a spectacle to just watch the whole thing play out, the episode actually uses these trappings to push some character development and large-ish things go down. Sure, Haley and Andy aren’t getting married, and she might not be pregnant, but seeing how the family reacts if she were is quite the bonding moment. It might be a cop out of sorts to pull out of these stakes (although did anyone really expect Haley to be married by the end of this?), but the catharsis it provides, as well as the juxtaposition to Claire’s own rebellious youth holds up.

After all of the visual wizardry that the episode marvels in, it executes kind of the perfect ending, as easy as it is. Claire fakes having connection problems in order to avoid closeness, just after the whole episode has been about making and maintaining contact. A solid joke is also gained from the idea of technology crapping out and being unreliable, when in actuality this entire episode is made possible because of the advents of technology.

It just goes to show you, just when you think technology is at its apex and has never made us closer, the next thing you kno — CONNECTION LOST. PLEASE RELOAD PAGE AND TRY AGAIN. CHECK YOUR CONNECTION IF YOU CONTINUE TO EXPERIENCE ISSUES.

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