Modern Family has continued to be an intelligent, consistent, effective leading light in the recent return of the sitcom form. When it’s on point, Modern Family feels universal without being condescending or making generalizations, and it’s wacky and insightful enough to dodge most of the more annoying half-hour clichés. Plus, it’s reliably funny, which is enough to forgive most sitcom sins. It feels like an old-school family comedy that somehow manages to be fresh rather than tired.
I say this all in spite of what happened on Modern Family last night, which was one of the least funny product placement bits I’ve seen. It was Phil’s birthday, and in a coincidence which led him to believe that God and Steve Jobs teamed up to prove how much they loved him, it was also the release date of the iPad. Phil’s totally psyched to go stand in line at five in the morning so he can get one, but his wife Claire says that because it’s his birthday, she’ll go wait in line for him. Classic sitcom obstacles ensue, involving Claire oversleeping and thus missing the window of iPad availability, subsequent frantic across-town calling to try to find one in stock, and an inevitable brawl outside an Apple store when a guy cuts in line. Finally, Phil and Claire’s son Luke scrounges one up by lying about Phil being on his deathbed, and the family gathers together around a glowing touchpad screen, basking in the warmth of early adopterhood.
Yes, there were two other subplots that did pull a little screen time away from the extended iPad commercial. The “your wife and son can beat you at chess” plotline was a rare instance on Modern Family of a story I feel like I’ve seen twenty times before, but Cam and Mitchell eavesdropping on the neighbors’ soap opera life through the baby monitor was pretty funny. It really doesn’t matter how many subplots you have, though, when Phil spends a great deal of time explaining just how awesome the iPad is, and then the heart-warming family unity moment at the end of the episode looks like this:
Did I mention the title of the episode, which is “Game Changer?” Yeah. And leading up to that Apple-inspired scene of family togetherness, Claire walks in carrying the iPad, which has a cake with wavering, realistic lit candles on the screen. Sure enough, Claire says “Happy Birthday!” and Phil walks over, bends down, and blows out the candles. The ones on the iPad screen. As if that’s not enough, he then yells to himself gleefully, “It did not JUST DO THAT!!”
Here’s what’s so amazing about the whole episode: according to this LA Times article, this wasn’t even paid product placement! Apple has stated that its only involvement in the episode was supplying an iPad for them to use. Sure, Steve Jobs is on the board of Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, but it looks like this was all Modern Family’s idea. It’s a shame, because the show has the potential to be one of those shows that will age well, because its humor is usually so good at capturing this decade and connecting it to more universal themes. This seems to be Modern Family trying to cash in on current events, and sacrificing universality for topicality.
Or maybe one of the producers just could not wait to get an iPad, and devised the whole thing as an elaborate scheme to jump to the front of the line.