Over the past few years, product integration has gradually become unavoidable in television and film. Advertisers try desperately try to reach online viewers who are able to skip past commercials or avoid them entirely thanks to services like Netflix. Audiences grin and bear it as a necessary evil (Hello, prominently placed Target shopping bags! Couldn’t miss you if we tried, obtrusive car logo shot!), worth the pay-off of watching shows commercial-free.
There have been some iconic instances of product integration in the past, from E.T.’s Reese Pieces to Seinfeld’s Junior Mints. But Wednesday’s episode of Modern Family, “Connection Lost,” may top them all. The episode features truly organic product integration, with the entire plot being told through family matriarch Claire Dunphy’s MacBook Pro and the apps she uses to communicate with her family. Shot completely on MacBooks, iPhone 6s and iPads, the episode finds Claire (Julie Bowen) on her laptop at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, preparing to fly home after a business trip and growing increasingly frantic as she searches for daughter Hayley (Sarah Hyland), who's gone MIA in the aftermath of their latest fight.
In the context of the plot, Apple’s apps and their familiar sound effects are as much a part of the action as Claire and the rest of her boisterous family are. FaceTime, Messaging, Safari, iTunes, Reminders, iPhoto, and even the iCloud all make appearances at one time or another, but non-Apple apps like Facebook, Instagram and Google also get some screen time. The result is an episode that’s effective and very funny, without ever actually feeling like an ad. In part, that’s because—surprise!—Apple didn’t pay a cent to be involved. Instead, the idea came from Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, who co-wrote and directed the episode. Levitan was inspired in part by a FaceTime chat with one of his college-age daughters. “This came from life and it made sense,” Levitan told the Associated Press. Show producers sought and received Apple’s blessing, of course. There’s precedent for the relationship—in 2010 a Modern Family episode centered around Ty Burrell’s character Phil Dunphy pining for an about-to-be-released iPad. Apple didn’t pay for inclusion in that episode either.
Because there’s no quid pro quo, the episode is devoid of the usual nonsense that accompanies almost all product integration. There are no lingering shots of the product and logo, no nonsensical, awkward dialogue designed to extoll the virtues of a particular item and none of those particularly egregious scenes—so prevalent in car integration—where characters are forced to change their behavior in a transparent effort to showcase the product. One of the worst recent examples of this was a 2012 episode of USA’s White Collar, which devoted 30 seconds to showing off a Ford Taurus’ automatic parallel parking feature.
Thankfully Levitan and the rest of the Modern Family team appear too smart for that. Claire is far too harried to stop and extol the virtues of group FaceTiming or iCloud’s Find Your iPhone feature. Unlike a musical or live episode, it doesn’t end up feeling like a gimmick, nor does it come off as particularly desperate or promotional. Likely, most of the show's audience has, at some time, turned to Google in an emergency, sent someone increasingly frantic texts, scoured a friend or family member’s Facebook page for clues, or had to deal with someone who doesn’t quite understand FaceTime.
In today’s plugged-in culture, a dependency on technology is as much a part of daily life as the chores and squabbles that usually occupy the Dunphy family’s days. More importantly, however, this episode’s seamless product integration stands as the best testament yet to how streamlined Apple's software is: Now you don’t even have to look up from your laptop to record an episode of a hit sitcom.
If there’s one issue, it’s that everything works a little too flawlessly: There are no unintentionally dropped calls or lousy connections in this episode, most certainly not the experience of anyone who’s ever used FaceTime—or airport wifi.
But the ambitious half-hour validates Levitan’s vow to Quartz last summer that his show would keep taking risks and wouldn’t become complacent in its sixth season in the face of critical grumbles. “I think the show is just as strong as it was, but I think that now, it’s a little less new for some,” Levitan said at the time. “Our whole focus right now is how can we maintain the quality, despite what some people say.”