Six years in, Modern Family is still searching for fresh ways to approach comedy. There’s no clearer example than the series’ Feb. 25 installment, which takes place entirely on a computer screen.
The episode, titled “Connection Lost,” follows Claire (Julie Bowen)’s digital communication with her family while she’s away from home and can’t get a hold of her daughter, Haley (Sarah Hyland). The plot unfolds within the confines of a MacBook Pro screen and relies heavily on the iPhone, FaceTime, iMessage, Safari and other Apple creations.
Co-creator Steve Levitan, who’s overseeing the episode, suggests that it’s these kinds of stories that allow the Dunphys to live up to the show’s title. If what’s modern about Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet) is their same-sex marriage, and what’s modern about Jay (Ed O’Neill) and Gloria (Sofia Vergara) is their cross-generational relationship, then what’s modern about the Dunphys is the way they communicate.
The series has aired well over 100 episodes and has already collected 21 Emmys, and Levitan noted that it’s innovative ideas like this one that keep him enthusiastic about the show: “I look for something in every episode that I am excited about, something that’s new and feels challenging to me, a fresh way to convey an idea,” he said at a pre-screening of the episode for media.
What’s more, filming the episode as they did opened the show’s writers up to new punch lines. There’s a scene, for instance, where Claire is FaceTiming Gloria, who, disinterested in actually talking, goes off to look at Pinterest pages. “That’s a type of a joke that you just couldn’t tell within a normal show that we get to tell here,” said episode co-writer Megan Ganz.
A first look at “Connection Lost,” airing Wednesday, Feb. 25.
Levitan said he hatched the idea as he was FaceTiming with his own daughter on his laptop while also checking email and surfing a few websites. “I realized that on that screen, you can tell so much about life,” he said. His daughter later sent him a link to a 17-minute short film, Noah, which had garnered attention for its use of the screen-within-a-screen storytelling device after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. Levitan said he reached out to its creators, Canadian filmmakers Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman, but the pair were involved with another project that precluded them from helping with the episode.
This is hardly Modern Family’s first brush with the cutting edge of technology. A first-season episode followed Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell)’s quest to get his hands on the new iPad for his birthday, a storyline criticized by some as an egregious Apple endorsement. But Levitan insists no money exchanged hands then, just as no money exchanged hands now. “There’s no product placement or anything,” he said definitively, adding: “This just came from life, and it made sense.”
In fact, Levitan insists that the tech-gadget storylines usually stem from his own technophile tendencies. “I’m super geeky with all this stuff, and I love the latest things,” he said, noting that the iPad episode was birthed from his own excitement surrounding the new product. The show’s producers did, however, call Apple to inform the company of their plans and in return received multiple iPhones, iPads and a MacPro. “All shows have an ongoing relationship with major computer companies,” Levitan acknowledged. “We have an ongoing cooperation with Apple.”
Everything in the episode was shot using the iPhone 6s and iPads that Apple had gifted the producers, except for a couple small scenes that required a MacBook Pro, because the creators thought it would look more realistic than filming higher-quality footage to only dumb it down. Despite the fact that 95 percent of the footage was shot within two days, Levitan says the episode was “easily the most labor-intensive [one] that we’ve ever done.” The real challenge was designing the rest of the computer screen, which involved re-creating the interface of Yosemite, Apple’s newest operating system, by hand.
Technology will continue to be woven into future episodes of the comedy in various ways. “There are going to be some more opportunities going forward with the way things are evolving, like characters going off to school, that will provide opportunities for stuff like this,” Levitan said, adding with a laugh: “But probably not as ambitious as this.”