Thursday, September 27, 2012

FOURTH WALL ISSUES: TV is back (though, of course it never really went away), and from what little we've seen yet, it's the same as ever (New Girl: funny P&R: funny and also loveable; HIMYM: not funny and not loveable; something new and shiny (here, Mindy Project): could go either way).  The most interesting thing to happen so far, though, was on last night's Modern Family

Allow me a digression.  In one of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's most famous paintings, a barmaid looks directly at the viewer.  There is a mirror behind her, and in the mirror you can see a customer speaking to her, but the viewer (or painter) doesn't appear.  The effect is jarring, as if you were invisible in your own bathroom mirror while brushing your teeth. 

Modern Family is a mockumentary.  Its characters sit on couches or chairs and speak directly to the camera about things that just happened or are about to happen on-screen.  The show uses furtive glances at the camera to convey embarassment or judgment.  The camera is usually hand-held except in talking-head scenes; sometimes it struggles to keep up with the characters in scenes with a lot of action. 

Yet in last night's MF, the camera did something that (to my knowledge) it had not done before.  In the middle of a Jay-Gloria embrace, the camera zoomed in, then pulled back to an entirely different scene a few months later.  Though it's nothing we haven't seen in other shows, it was odd here because it traded the ersatz verite mockumentary style for a more traditional narrative style.  It felt like that Toulouse-Lautrec painting to me -- an acknowledgement that the realism of the medium is itself an illusion.  I could be wrong, but I also think the lighting style changed and the film itself got warmer (or maybe the focus got softer).  I don't know enough to speak to the technical changes.  In any event, the feeling was similar to the part in The Secret Garden when the characters go from black and white to full, saturated color.  I don't know whether they'll stick with this or not, and whether it will feel cheap later, but it was a very effective way to convey the emotion of a big family moment. 

Incidentally, The Office tried a similar breaking of format last week, when Jim and Pam spoke directly to the film crew.  It was the second such break (after Michael's farewell scene), and it was jarring (and meant to be jarring).  Since the payoff is supposed to come at the end of the season, rather than the beginning, it's hard to say whether it worked.  But I'm all for shows trying different things. 


  1. Jordan11:31 AM

    Toulouse-Lautrec or Manet?

    1. I think you're right. I'm just getting my French barflies mixed up.

  2. Despite the talking heads, Modern Family has moved away from the mockumentary style since its beginning. Indeed, in the original pilot script, the "documentary crew" were also envisioned as regulars, but were dropped in early rewrites. Personally, I found the flashforward stuff excessively sappy on last night's MF, particularly Manny's cornball poem, despite the rest of the episode being quite good.

  3. lisased8:50 PM

    I liked the moment, but it was disorienting. My first reaction was, "Phil put on a fake beard!" Then I rewound it.

  4. And yes, as usual HIMYM is funny and sometimes moving. (Though the overuse of the underwater effect was a mistake.)

  5. My wife noticed that as well, thinking it was Renoir, but it's definitely Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (unless Isaac meant another painting entirely).