The 21st-Century TV Shows That Get 21st-Century Tech Right

For television shows, technology presents particular problems. Some are doing it well...others, less so.

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For TV shows, technology can present some problems. Scenes featuring a lot of text on screen and GChat conversations, for example, would result in a very quiet, boring-to-watch show—this is the perpetual problem of a potential reality show about bloggers, for instance. But totally eliminating something so present in our lives makes a situation feel unrealistic, oddly lacking a huge element of modern life. Films -- whose creative gestation can take years -- are often victims of this tech unreality. Take Whit Stillman's latest film, Damsels in Distress. "Is this film for real?," wondered Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review of the movie. His first hint that something's off: "No one seems to use a cell phone, let alone a Facebook account." Judd Apatow's movies, too, sometimes fall into a time warp. In the 2007 film Knocked Up, for example, Seth Rogan's character does not have a cell phone even though in 2007 70 percent of Americans owned cell phones. TV's shorter creative cycles allow them to be more reactive to the ways that people are using technology. Still, there can be hits and misses, but these are some of the standouts that present 2012 technology in a very 2012 way.


Unlike Stillman's film, Girls acknowledges technology's existence, giving the characters 21st-century devices like cell phones and MacBooks. At times Girls gets it right, but during others it feels about five years off. (Apatow, it should be pointed out, is an executive producer on the show.) Sure, it acknowledges the tech toys we use today—but it tends to handle them as if they'd just been discovered, with characters wielding them in awkward ways. In the most recent episode, we had an entire plot-line devoted to sexting between Lena Dunham's character, Hannah and her non-boyfriend boyfriend Adam. Sexting, yes, that is very 21st century -- a recent Pew survey found 6 percent of adult Americans admit to having sent a sext and15 percent have received such material. (We all know admit rates are lower than real rates.)  And Hannah does what any girl of this over-share-y generation would do: give it an OMG and then pass it around to her friends. But there was a part that felt off: Hannah was baffled by the misspelling of "SRY" when her non-boyfriend claimed the text was a mistake. Doesn't that seem like a mom-esque complaint, or a snobby texter's woe from a few years ago? Wouldn't Adam be the type who would employ a shortened spelling ironically? Or perhaps that's how any girl would react when scrutinizing every character and pixel in a sext from a guy with whom she's annoyed.

Two episodes ago, when Hannah was worried about sexually transmitted diseases, she headed off to Google for an instant diagnosis. That tracks as something any curious 2012 human would do. But she doesn't really know how to search for what she wants, typing in a full-sentence search term into the homepage: "Diseases that come from no condom for one second," which she then erases, replacing it with "stuff that gets up the side of condoms." It felt like watching a grandma Google. You  wanted to clean up that search for her: erase all those prepositions and use something more Google-friendly—"STDs No Condoms," for instance. Considering that the Dunham generation very much communicates and expresses themselves via technology --  didn't you read that terrifying New York Times article about how kids these days can't have in human conversation?— the girls on this show seem more confused than empowered by the technology that they use.

Or, to give another example, take what Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorkercalled "the perfect Twitter moment." If Dunham's character were a real 24-year-old aspiring writer, she would likely be on Twitter. But she seems more fearful of the medium than its master. We watch Hannah contemplate the perfect tweet to convey her feelings after receiving a slew of shocking advice. She settles on an earlier line from her friend Jessa: "All adventurous women do."

Modern Family

This show has entire plot lines structured around the way we interact with technology, but technology is worked into the show in more subtle ways, too. It's just around. The eldest teenage daughter, Haley, is always on her phone, texting her friends. All the time. The writers work it into her character, it's not awkward to watch her text. Then there was an entire episode in which the mom, Claire, insisted the whole family give up their computer-time for other things. And, of course, Claire's the one who can't live without technology. That feels very now, right? Moms are always deriding tech, but they love it, too. Or, to give another example of that parental hypocrisy when it comes to tech. In another episode, Claire, gets offended when her daughters don't accept her Facebook friend requests. But Alex, the younger daughter, points out "You said it was only for teenagers or people who wanted to have affairs." Yeah, mom, thought you thought this tech what, stupid?

But the one episode that really stands out is when the dad, Phil Dunphy, obsesses over getting a new iPad for his birthday. The show incorporates the crazy fanboyism that surrounds Apple products. Claire gets up early to wait in line -- something that definitely happens in real life -- for the new gadget. When she falls asleep and the thing sells out, it's Luke, the young son, who doesn't know a world without the Internet, who figures out how to get his dad his beloved toy via the Web.

And here's that spot-on fanboyism again.


We don't often see the Glee kids interact with devices, but when we do have a tech moment, it feels on point, serving as both a commentary on the way kids these days do tech as well as a plot device. On a recent episode, for example, one of the Glee kids uploads a video of Mercedes singing "Disco Inferno" to YouTube; the clip then goes viral. In another episode, Kurt and Blaine, who are dating, get into a fight over flirty text messages. And, the entire opening of the second season happens via video interviews for a high school gossip blog. These are all old themes -- fame, jealousy, and gossip -- just presented in new mediums.

The Good Wife

According to The New Yorker's Nussbaum, this show has an "unprecedented emphasis on technology." She writes,

This season alone, Lockhart Gardner took a case involving the online currency bitcoin; used Twitter to upend British libel laws; handled a military case involving drone warfare; litigated crimes featuring violent video games and a “date rape” app; and dealt with various leaked-image disasters (a corporation fighting a viral video, an Anthony Weiner-like dirty photograph). In one dizzyingly self-reflective story line, a Zuckerbergian entrepreneur sued a Sorkinesque screenwriter; the episode had a confident structural wit, subjecting a writer who defended distorted portrayals to his own distorted portrayal. Over time, such plots have become a dense, provocative dialectic, one that weighs technology’s freedoms against its dangers, with a global sweep and an insider’s nuance.

Though Nussbaum got a little over zealous with Girls, we found plenty of agreement from more trusted tech sources. For instance, Gizmodo's Michael Hessian convinces his audience of tech nerds the show is worth watching because it has "tons of tech." "Technology is coarsing through this show's plot," he writes. The L.A. Times calls tech one of the shows favorite subjects.

Per Nussbuam, not only do the plots revolve around the type of cyber crimes and Internet-related politics we see in real life today, the show also uses tech as a lens for looking at the relationships of the characters, Nussbaum continues.

 In this quality, The Good Wife stands in contrast not merely to other legal shows, with their “The Internet killed him!” plots, but also to the reductive punditry of the mainstream media, so obsessed with whether Twitter is making us stupid. Put bluntly, The Good Wife is to the digital debate as The Wire is to the drug war

We have to quibble with her assessment of The Wire. Among its many, many virtues, its depiction of technology was not one of them. Yes, the cops employed all sorts of doodads and dangles in the show set in the mid-2000s. But things like the drug dealers' pay phone codes and the use of beepers were first employed in the 1980s by real-life Baltimore kingpin Melvin Williams, who showed up in The Wire playing a pastor.

Parks and Recreation

First, the characters have all the right gadgets for their personalities. The nerdier character Ann has an Android phone; the government employee Leslie has a BlackBerry. (Though, as a fan on Tumblr pointed out, in one episode Leslie Knope has a mysterious iPhone. Twentysomething April texts a lot, at least in the early seasons, including an episode where she texts Leslie during a meeting. Maybe her distance from her phone represents a sort of maturation with her character? She seems to text a lot less once she married Andy.

But what really makes this show get tech right is the way it addresses how the stodgy political scene has integrated technology into its circus. For example, in a recent episode, the candidates for city council have a debate, during which the moderators accept a question from Twitter "because apparently that's something which happens now." The tweet, from @Munchmeat2015: "Pawnee used 2 b safe. Some1 stole my car. What will u do 2 make Pawnee safe & can u help me find my car?"

Ok, that's not a 100 percent accurate portrayal of the way tweets show up in debates (networks tend to screen Tweets for more coherent offerings) -- but this is about commentary, which is what all of our shows aim for in their incorporation of technology. All these programs, like Girls, want to act as portrayals of life as it exists in the 21st century. The better the shows address tech -- a huge part of our almost robot lives -- the more real they feel and the deeper and more elegant the point. Girls does an all right job, but it could do better. Or, maybe we're just picking on Girls because Girls is so fun to pick on.

Or perhaps it's an audience issue. As someone, like me, for whom technology is built into almost every aspect of the day, these scenes, when not done exactly right, feel inauthentic. But the majority of viewers don't have that kind of relationship with tech. Only 13 percent of online Americans use Twitter, for example. To someone who does not interact with this stuff every day, a little artistic license explains an otherwise foreign concept. For others -- and lots of people who don't use Twitter do watch TV -- this dumbing down of tech offers a more relatable, decipherable version of how a generation interacts with something as foreign as gadgets and social media. It's like an "aha moment." The problem is, however, while it makes an entire generation more relatable, it gives the wrong impression about how people really interact with these things.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.