The minute they got rid of rotary phones everything went to hell. – Jay
There it is. Jay’s wisdom from the latest installment of Modern Family perfectly sums up the obvious social commentary and also inherent contradiction that comes out of Connection Lost (Season 6, Ep. 16). Everything has gone to hell. Except it hasn’t.
Whether you come from traditional TV or digital media, Connection Lost was a monumental work of storytelling. As someone who straddles both worlds every day, this latest episode, appropriately and not-so-subtly-titled Connection Lost, stands out in a time when storytellers of all sorts are innovating the ways that stories can be told on and about digital media.
SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t watched the episode yet, read no further.
The Format. The immediately obvious thing about Connection Lost is that the entire episode takes place on Claire’s laptop screen, where we watch her FaceTime, iChat, Facebook (from the fake account she uses to spy on Haley) and surf the web. Although this may sound difficult to watch, the Modern Family team pulled it off elegantly. The production alone was impressive, and there was something warmly familiar about watching Claire bounce between conversations and apps with the same ease we all exhibit in our private digital lives each and every day. I didn’t think the translation of 2-dimensional digital windows to TV could work, but it did.
Kudos to Christopher Lloyd and Steve Levitan’s team; this could not have been easy to explain ahead of time. Surely a case where only “showing,” not “telling” would do. Hats off for trying something new and mind-blowing on TV. It’s still possible!
The Story. As I’ve come to expect from Modern Family, it was ultimately the story that really made the episode sing. We’re flung into Claire’s frenetic discovery (ultimately an erroneous discovery) of Haley’s marriage and pregnancy (via a Facebook status update and the arrival of a book on pregnancy), and we watch her frantically FaceTime every member of the cast trying to figure out where Haley is and what’s happening to her. She even hacks Haley’s iCloud account locate Haley…in Vegas. The episode brought all the characters together for their trademark intimate moments, albeit in virtual space, and it was these moments that really made the story connect emotionally. Phil looking into his phone lamenting the fact that he wasn’t there to give Haley away. Jay comparing Haley’s unexpected surprise marriage to Claire’s. The fact that the story was taking place in virtual space didn’t really matter; these were powerful emotional moments that the audience could relate to. Even in virtual 2D space, story counts.
The Point? It was an amazing production of digital experiences assembled for TV, and the story hit all the emotional touchpoints of great Modern Family episodes. But that wasn’t the episode’s only brilliance.
In the end, it turned out that Haley married a cronut on Facebook as a joke, she wasn’t actually in Vegas – her phone was there because she left it in a friend’s car, and she didn’t order that book on pregnancy for herself, it was for her boss.
So everything went to hell. Except it didn’t really. Nothing happened.
The show makes a powerful statement about the current state of our communications and relationships in just 21 short minutes. All our toys bring us closer together and create virtual space for intimate, real moments. But at the same time they create false stories, controversy, and conflict that isn’t real at all. Had Claire not lost her phone she wouldn’t have gone on her digital quest to stalk, discuss, and ultimately locate her daughter. But she also wouldn’t have been able to connect, talk and cry with her family from her gate sitting at O’Hare.