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Why Hollywood fails to capture the everyday horror of social media—and how to finally get it right
Social media might be scary in real life, but it still looks ridiculous on TV.
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.
At Badass Digest, Meredith Borders insists that the film (known as Cybernatural at the time of her review) is worth viewing, saying that “on the tiny confines of my laptop screen, alone in an unfamiliar room with earphones drowning out all other noise—damned if that execution wasn’t effective.” Even she admitted, though, that the trick might not play well on the big screen, speaking to the sense of intimacy and familiarity viewers experience when looking at a laptop in comparison with the isolation and ability to step back from a television or film screen.
Cyberbully takes place in close quarters, but it’s not as tight as the upcoming Modern Family episode or Unfriended, instead taking viewers to the room of a teenage girl who’s being cyberbullied. The film takes naked advantage of a news trend paired with a high-profile actress (Game of Thrones‘s Maisie Williams) and attempts to heighten the drama with the unrelenting pressure of never leaving the room.
In Open Windows, a film with rather middling reviews (it scored a 47 on Metacritic and a 33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Elijah Wood stars as Nick, a man who wins a date with his favorite actress—and turns vengeful when she refuses to honor the deal. When he’s offered an opportunity to spy on her, he takes it, and the drama unfolds from there as the film vainly attempts to be a technothriller.
The conceit only works when it’s not a conceit, but rather an integral part of the narrative without which the story cannot happen. The classic example is, of course, The Matrix, where the digital world is woven into the film as a key component of the lives of the characters. The fact that the film is science fiction helps as well, because the bounds of believability are highly malleable and viewers expect to see high-tech aspects, while also being more tolerant of ludicrous settings.
Maybe Modern Family will be able to beat the conceit and produce an episode that will feel credible and authentic. More likely, though, it will fall down the rabbit hole that’s eaten so many attempts at the same narrative style before, because we don’t live in the Matrix. This is real life.
Screengrab via ABC/YouTube
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.