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Modern Family's latest episode, filmed on smartphones, highlights modern connection — or lack thereof

(ABC)

At first blush, "Connection Lost," the 16th episode of Modern Family's sixth season, might look like Apple product placement, shot entirely with iPads, iPhones, and other Apple cameras as it is. But it's not — Apple didn't directly sponsor the episode, though it did provide the series with the gadgets.

Look closer, though, and "Connection Lost" reveals itself to be exemplary of a show that is taking chances, even in its sixth season, when many other series are resting on their laurels. On a technical level, the episode is a wonder. To get the distinctive look of people chatting on a computer screen, cameramen used real iPhones, and the actors kept their hands on the cameramen's wrists, lending the whole affair a selfie vibe.

But the episode's script was a knockout as well. To keep the story from wilting, credited writers Steve Levitan (who also directed) and Megan Ganz had to find a way to fill the screen with as much action as possible. Easier said than done. "Connection Lost" pulled it off. And, what's more, it managed to say something about these characters and the show's deepest themes.

Stuck at the airport

"Connection Lost" is framed within Claire Dunphy's (Julie Bowen) MacBook, as she waits to board a flight. Claire hates flying. It's no wonder, then, that she tries to patch things up with her daughter, Haley (Sarah Hyland), before she takes off on her four-hour flight.

She then opens FaceTime to call husband, Phil (Ty Burrell), who, despite his absorption in the video game Halo, assures his wife he's taking care of the house in her absence. Phil ultimately has no clue where Haley is, so Claire FaceTimes her other daughter, Alex (Ariel Winter), who ends up being just a few feet away from her unsuspecting father. When no one can pinpoint Haley, Claire decides that the only logical explanation is that she ran off to Vegas with Joe's nanny to get married.

And on and on the episode goes: calling some characters, hanging up on others, browsing Facebook, shopping for a late birthday gift. It seems, in some ways, like a sitcom riff on the short film Noah, which takes place entirely on a teenager's computer screen. (Watch it here.)

Yet "Connection Lost" finds its own ridiculous rhythms. What might have ended up a painfully boring episode that existed for the pure sake of its gimmick ended up a hilariously innovative half-hour, one that's tapped into the ways we communicate right now.

Creating deadpan on a computer screen

Modern Family has always been built around the deadpan, the dry joke, the take to camera.

Like The Office, Modern Family is shot as a mockumentary, giving the characters the opportunity to break the fourth wall. Arguably, a deadpan take to camera requires little effort on the actor's part: all it requires is looking into a lens. Sure, sometimes actors on this show take the easy way out and shoot a passing glance to the audience rather than pursue the moment's comedy in more difficult ways. But typically, the comic sensibilities of the actors on Modern Family are mature enough that they find ways to keep this feeling fresh.

The question surrounding this episode, then, is can the show be funny without deadpan? After all, if the entire episode is "actors looking directly at the camera," doing a quick take to camera can't be the punchline.

The solution to this was to experiment with how to tell a joke. Traditionally, sitcom humor relies on spoken jokes or physical comedy. What's fascinating about "Connection Lost" is how many of its jokes are textual. One character says something, then Claire types something, and her typing provides the gag.

For example: Claire calls up brother Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) to wish him a late birthday. She asks if the present she bought him arrived. Yet while the two talk, we see her buy the present at RalphLauren.com and opt for Next Day delivery. When her brother quips that he can't wait to check the purchasing date on the invoice, Claire cancels the purchase. That quick exit functions much the same way as a smash-cut to Claire offering a take to camera.

If the actors aren't going deadpan in quite the same way, the cameras actually are. To assist with the success of the joke, Modern Family cameras traditionally zoom in on the actors just as they're about to deliver the punchline. For "Connection Lost," much of the comedy gets a boost from zooming, only the camera is focusing in on and pulling away from text.

One of the most impressive — though probably underrated — elements to the episode is the meticulous level of character-development involved in the half hour. Being able to create dialogue that sounds believable in the mouths of specific characters isn't always easy, but it's arguably much easier than creating a to-do list or Facebook page for that character.

We all know how Claire sounds when she talks, but it was important for her text messages to look just as believable, or for Haley's Facebook profile picture to seem like a "Haley Facebook profile picture," or for Alex's college admission essay to seem like something the over-achieving high schooler would have written. Here, too, the writers succeed. They know these characters as well as the actors playing them do.

Experimenting with form — and porn?

Modern Family has experimented with its format before — which makes sense given its title. The show has always been about reimagining institutions, without losing the heart of those institutions. "Modern" is merely an adjective to the writers. "Family," on the other hand, is what makes the show what it is.

Thus, despite the novel presentation, "Connection Lost," in a sense, was business as usual: How can we love our families to the best of our abilities in a modern world? This is an idea "Connection Lost" returns to again and again.

At one point, while trying to avoid reading her daughter's essay, Claire lets her eyes wander to the most welcome distraction she can find: a browser tab marked "Porn."

But this is Claire, so the porn is super clean — literally. The Pinterest page she opens is titled "Organizational Porn," and it features different ways of decluttering a house. This is how Claire distracts herself from the bonds she should be forming — the connection she may lose when her daughter moves out to go to college.

On first glance, "Connection Lost" might seem a strange name for an episode where literally everyone is connected by WiFi, separated only by one quick click of the finger. But the strength of relational knowledge can't actually be measured in megabits per second. Phil and Alex can be in the same house as Haley and not even know it.

Digital connectivity isn't at all the same thing as human intimacy. In porn, sex, a deeply intimate act, becomes performative. Bodies are connected, but even that connection is an illusion. Claire's Pinterest list is, thus, the perfect metaphor for this episode's deeper theme: are you really connecting with the people you're connected with?

In fact, when you come right down to it, this entire episode stands as one big distraction for Claire. Throughout its run, Alex sends her mom several different drafts. Of course, Claire doesn't read them, ultimately texting her to say the final version looks great!

We can only imagine the self-satisfied grin that lights on Alex's face when she sees the message, and recalls the words she snuck into the essay:

Nietzsche believed that most culture exists purely to distract us from the truth. If he is to be believed, then the context of our experience matters little when compared to the content of our experience. For this reason, I believe Yale will provide the best possible opportunities to expand as a scholar, pupil, and person. No institution, however dedicated and prestigious, can instill a desire for betterment where none exists, and I know you're not reading this, mom.

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