Modern Family will be going high-tech later this month with an episode set entirely on a laptop screen as Claire (Julie Bowen) uses every technological means she can think of to track down her daughter after an argument. The mockumentary-style television series isn’t the first to experiment with taking things online and through the screen, and it might not necessarily succeed. Life in the digital doesn’t always translate well for viewers, as evidenced by a number of fantastic flops, like Open Windows, which wasn’t exactly welcomed with opened arms.
In the case of Modern Family, there’s already a vague sense of pretentiousness, inevitable given the style. Mockumentaries can feel forced and artificial, and that’s no different here. At times, Modern Family feels deep and authentic, but at others, it feels like nothing more than breaking the fourth wall, a problem that may be underscored with this episode, which was filmed almost entirely with iPhones and other Apple products—something critics are already calling foul on, claiming the episode may end up feeling like an ad for Apple.
When deciding whether it’s even possible to pull off film and television set in the digital realm or with a heavy tech component, examining what doesn’t work is the best place to start. Understanding the obstacles that creators face when trying to adapt the digital world for live viewers can be informative, since these attempts can often feel extremely conceited and almost painful.
Such works often feel very stiff, ostentatious, and clunky. That’s coming through loud and clear with the upcoming Unfriended, for example, which is set entirely in the form of a Skype conversation taking place among a set of horrified teens.
The horror film ostensibly revolves around a humiliating video posted online and the subsequent suicide of the subject, but it’s hard to escape the fact that it feels a bit ludicrous. H. Shaw-Williams at ScreenRant writes that in the case of Unfriended, it’s clear that the social media setting is being used in an attempt to remix the horror genre and make the film stand out from the pack, and it doesn’t work: “The only thing that marks it apart from being another generic teen horror movie with a bunch of shrieking, unlikeable characters getting killed off one by one is the social media element—and even that seems a little gimmicky.”