reinventing ‘the bottle’

a look at modern family’s “connection lost”

For those who are easily distracted by their social lives and are not yet aware of the television trope known as the ‘bottle,’ here’s a brief education you can use to start up some lively conversation at your next engagement. A bottle episode is a self-contained episode of a series that sticks solely to its main cast of characters and previously built sets, usually for financial reasons: a coupon to be redeemed for one large explosion or massive brouhaha later in the season. A network can also use bottles to snag a new audience who might not be familiar with previous storylines in the show. For the audience, this can mean spending an entire episode watching a couple of schmucks make a sandwich, wait in a line, or make a sandwich while waiting in line, with a few notable exceptions of course (see Breaking Bad’s “Fly” or Community’s “Cooperative Calligraphy.”)

        Last week however, Modern Family revolutionized the ‘bottle’ with a new episode entitled “Connection Lost,” which was shot entirely on iPhones and other Apple paraphernalia, mounted in front of the actors on simple camera rigs so easy a college AV-nerd could do it. While Claire (Julie Bowen ’91) sits in Chicago O’Hare airport after a business trip and facetimes the family, she discovers through a claustrophobically technological whisper-down-the-lane that Haley may have run off to Vegas to get married … and may also be pregnant.

It’s definitely not the story that’s revolutionary–pretty typical, yawn-worthy stuff straight out of ‘Filming the Bottle 101.’ Rather, it’s Claire’s personal interactions with her Apple products, seen from a first-person perspective as the whole episode unfolds on her unsurprisingly pristine Mac desktop, that transform the episode into something new. The main narrative unfolds while Claire chats with various family members, but we also get a glimpse into her computer habits, ranging from a to-do list punctuated with “Meditate/Buy Wine” to an online article detailing the dangers of dryer vent fires to an online bookmark entitled ‘Organization Porn’ to an IMDB page for the sure-to-be-classic film Not Without My Daughter’s Daughter.

With such a technological setup to the story, Modern Family becomes that much more ‘modern.’ (My MCM education demands I say something about a theoretical breakage between the public and private spheres, but I’d rather not digress from sanity.)

Many critics have unjustly simplified the episode to twenty minutes of extended product placement. However, while Apple supplied oodles of equipment to film the episode, it did not pay a cent for the advertisement. Writer Steve Levitan said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the storytelling technique was made possible by “an ongoing cooperation with Apple.” Audiences are inherently familiar with the look and feel of an iPhone, which is the main reason it was chosen over its Android cousin.

I learned the hard way that how you receive the episode is entirely contingent upon how you watch it. For my first viewing, I was reclined on the couch with the screen across the room, the same way we’ve been watching television for the last fifty years. Yet I was bored and was playing with my own Apple tech, so I couldn’t read the many Easter Eggs littered across Claire’s computer desktop (the real fun of the experience).

Then I gave it one more chance and pulled it up on my Mac, and suddenly, I was laughing so hard I was crying. The difference? It was so much more amusing to actually watch Claire’s imaginary desktop framed by my very-real desktop. I was sucked into a new kind of storytelling that demanded my direct engagement (even in a reciprocal relationship, if you email once the show is over.) Plus, you can spot hilarious new tidbits the second time around, such as a hidden aside in Alex’s college essay (“I know you’re not reading this, mom.”)

The episode responds to our modern-day methods of watching media and the ultimate future of television sans television set.  For all intents and purposes, this is TV that we intimately know and love–a three act structure, commercial breaks, even the familiar Modern Family cinematography that zooms around the screen between Facetime windows as if they were the show’s beloved talking heads.

Yet “Connection Lost” foreshadows a transition that embraces new media and its effect on our own lives. I’ve followed the lives of the Pritchett clan since the pilot aired six years ago, and when I’m home, I watch it with my own family, a sentimental but obvious testament to the show’s relatability. My dad mistakenly puts his phone up to his ear while video-chatting, just like Jay, and my mom sends me at least an article a week warning me about a shoot-out in the Providence area, similar to Claire’s worrying ways. After less-than-stellar reviews for the past couple of years, Modern Family proved with this bottle episode that it’s still a show worth watching, especially in this modern age of TV and especially with your own modern family.

Some of my personal favorite highlights of the episode:

1)    Baby Joe playing with his own iPhone while Jay is Facetiming with Claire

2)    Lilly proclaiming she “was in the other room … behaving”

3)    DYLAN!!! (and his new career in sign-spinning)

4)  Phil and his magician friends who “are better at making [girls] disappear than finding them”

5)    Andy’s arsonist, hillbilly counterpart