The Modern Family iPhone Episode is a Sitcom Gimmick Revolution

By  · Published on February 26th, 2015

ABC Studios

What are the chances that Parks and Recreation and Modern Family would be the two “it” shows for this week? They couldn’t be more different. Parks and Rec loved pushing long-form arcs and exploding the status quo; Modern Family adores the status quo so much, the only changes from season to season are the size of the kids and the shift in Ed O’Neil’s hairline. They may have also added a baby in there somewhere.

Maybe that’s why there’s so much chatter about the latest Modern Family, which abandons the status quo for a minute (or 22) for something almost resembling the cutting edge. Yesterday’s outing, “Connection Lost,” takes place entirely on Claire’s (Julie Bowen) laptop screen, the story playing out as character pop in and out of FaceTime chat windows- the vast majority of the episode shot on actual Apple iProducts. It’s neat, the jokes land (as do most on Modern Family– the show may be formulaic, but the formula’s always been funny), and it’s got that refreshing-but-not-too-refreshing aura of a wearied show that’s genuinely putting in the effort to learn some new tricks (kinda like the seven-minute tracking shot on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a few weeks back).

And in a weird, kind of roundabout way, Modern Family may have done something incredible for TV as a whole. Well, for the whole of TV gimmicks, anyway.

Because “Modern Family Goes to Cyberspace” is absolutely a gimmick. “Connection Lost” has zero ramifications for the show’s future; it’s not like images of Claire’s email inbox will be a regular feature from now on. It’s a perspective twist that lasted for one week and got Modern Family back on people’s radars for about the same length of time. A gimmick. And while iPhone video is absolutely becoming a part of the TV/movie landscape, “Connection Lost” is charging headfirst in the wrong direction.

The age of “I shot this movie entirely on my phone” is officially upon us. Last year, the San Jose Cinequest Film Festival saw And Uneasy Lies the Mind, an 88-minute feature shot entirely on somebody’s phone. At this year’s Sundance was Tangerine– same deal. In both cases, the iPhone’s part of the appeal. But so is not broadcasting the iPhone gimmick in every single frame. And Uneasy Lies the Mind’s team was planning to shoot on 16mm film, couldn’t afford it, and found that the combination of an iPhone and a Turtleback (a legit camera lens that pops onto your phone), created a 16mm-ish look. Meanwhile, the writer/director of Tangerine said he “wouldn’t have even made the movie” if he hadn’t discovered a similar gizmo.

That’s where this whole iPhone thing is headed- making a movie that looks like a movie but was shot with a phone (and eventually, an age when we’re all walking around with state-of-the-art filmmaking equipment in our butt pockets). Modern Family didn’t whip its iPhone out to tell a story. The iPhone is the story. Big difference. Also, “Connection Lost” probably isn’t feasible in the long run, because filming the episode was apparently a horrifying nightmare ordeal.

Series co-creator Steve Levitan assumed the cast could just film themselves selfie-style using the phones in their pockets, but that proved too demanding, so they rigged up a system where camera operators handled the phones while one actor in each scene would hold the camera operator’s hand to stay in selfie position. Having Bowen just click around on a MacBook screen wouldn’t work either, so ABC hired a graphic artist to completely recreate a OS X Yosemite that could be sped up/tinkered with to fit the episode’s pacing concerns. Oh, and the iPhone footage was data-heavy enough to outright destroy an editor’s computer.

The entire process took about four months, which is anywhere from four to eight times what it takes to shoot and edit an average Modern Family. Which caused extra problems, because every time Apple updated a program used in the episode, the graphic designers would have to redo that portion of their fake Yosemite to match the new design.

No TV show in its right mind would trudge through that digital hell 24 times a year (although it’s probably not as grueling once you’ve done it a few times). But there still might be a future in “Connection Lost.” In reading through the rest of the Internet’s thoughts on Modern Family’s iEpisode, I came across this piece by Bloomberg’s Zara Kessler, that points out something pretty important:

“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”).”

And that’s the secret revolution in “Connection Lost.” Nobody’s going to make all-computerized TV episodes on a regular basis. Because of the ordeal above, but also because I’m not sure the format could sustain a full season of TV; let alone a Season Two or Three (maybe if the writers started getting super creative with the onscreen apps/websites).

But I could see other shows like Modern Family, shows that have hit middle age and are looking for the TV equivalent of a red convertible and a luxury toupee, popping everyone on phone screens to shake things up. Just a few months back, Supernatural put out a musical number to shake off the dust of its tenth season. It’s not impossible that in a few years, a show of similar age might copy “Connection Lost” to regain a little buzz. And from there, another show. Then another. And at that point, the “iPhone Episode” gimmick is canonized. Modern Family may never be the Che Guevara of sitcoms, but it might have just revolutionized the eye-rolling sitcom cliches of tomorrow.