March 31st, 2010
I’ve written a few times in the past about how Twitter can create certain expectations about a show before I get a chance to watch it, and this was very much the case with “Game Changer.” I didn’t know anything about the episode going into the day, but the people I follow on Twitter were all very interested in discussing the appearance of Apple’s shiny-new iPad on the series.
As I tweeted after watching the episode late last night, I don’t necessarily get the outraged response from some people: product integration is something that we need to start accepting as part of this television era, and the iPad is precisely the kind of product that Phil (who has to money to support his every technological impulse) would be desperate to purchase. My general view on product placement is that if it fits the show and the character then there’s nothing to be outraged about; as long as there’s congruity, outrage is simply not an emotion I’m likely to feel.
However, what we should be focusing on with “Game Changer” is that it didn’t really make me feel anything at all: rather than focusing on the product replacement as an easy target, let’s focus on how the Claire/Phil story was dangerously close to stories the show has done before, or how the rest of the episode felt just a bit “lazy.”
I really like this cast, and there were a number of things about this episode that made me laugh based entirely on their performances: Cameron’s eavesdropping, Manny’s enjoyment of Jay’s watch, Jay realizing he was swindled while choking Mitchell, pretty much every word spoken by Gloria, etc. However, I don’t know if any of this was really dependent on the stories themselves: the connections between the various stories through Mitchel relied a bit too much on the physical humour side of things, and while that was probably my favourite part of Claire’s story (losing her shoes, for example), it seemed like the story didn’t exist for any other purpose than to make those connections.
And that, you could argue, was the real problem with the iPad story. While the story fits Phil’s character, it doesn’t actually accomplish anything new for the character, which is what makes it so problematic. This is pretty much the exact same story as their Anniversary, as Claire struggles to find a gift for the man who has everything; in that case, we got the forced Edward Norton cameo that didn’t quite work, and here we got the iPad product placement which felt just as inorganic as a result of the story being so blindly repetitive. It may be “seamless” for the show to just take an old story idea and place the iPad at the centre of it, but the show didn’t really go out of its way to try to make this story say something new about these characters. Rather, it took the stock positions of the Dunphy clan (Luke as liar, for instance) and put them to use to serve the needs of the product placement.
As Alan Sepinwall points out, it seemed a bit strange that everyone went along with it so easily: in “reality,” he would have been talking about it so much for months that the family would have been driven crazy, as opposed to the family more or less just learning about his plans for the next morning the night before. There was a sort of sitcom feel to the story that does the show no favours, and the lack of any sort of history surrounding the product or any other product missed a huge opportunity to investigate (and satirize) Phil’s early adopter tendencies. I don’t know if that was actually part of the terms of being able to use the iPad, but it kept the story from feeling 100% owned by the characters; it worked on a surface level, sure, but there was so much more potential here that just went completely unused.
When I call the episode lazy, I don’t mean that it wasn’t funny; rather, I mean that it seemed like they only took things so far as they made sense as opposed to trying to create something new or exciting. In some cases, subtlety works for this show, as I liked that Phil’s time at the batting cages didn’t involve him crashing or ruining Little Phil’s birthday or getting hit in the nuts with a fastball. But not seeing Cameron’s plea to the couple close to divorcing over a misunderstanding, as heard over the baby monitor, was a complete cheat, and the kind of thing where the show starts to very clearly map out its stories rather than letting them flow naturally.
When the show tells small stories from unnatural beginnings, like the chess set happening to get Jay and Manny going, they work because the performances can carry them. But when the show uses things like product placement or ignores logical parts of stories in favour of what is easier or less complicated, there is a greater burden on the show, and at times it can’t live up to those expectations. I don’t mind product integration in general, and I don’t think this was a particularly outrageous example, but it was one that didn’t live up to its comic potential in the context of the episode, and so the episode was a letdown regardless.
- I can’t remember offhand any other shows but the Simpsons that have done this exact “eavesdropping on other people using a baby monitor” storyline, but that’s at least one show they were ripping off.
- Speaking of trends, both Greek and Modern Family has mail carriers breaking the law after a character pleads with them – that he gave up the address so easily seemed like it was meant as a joke, but it didn’t really connect.
- On a completely tangential note, I really want an iPad.