Old Stories, New Tellers: How Modern Web Series Are Changing Classics

It all started with a girl looking into camera with a wry smile, and beginning, ‘My name is Lizzie Bennet’…

And so, a now iconic YouTube series was born, and the beginning of an entire new sub-genre of online content was created, slotting neatly beside the Netflix and Amazon-only productions of shows. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was the first major production of the appropriately-monikered Pemberley Digital studios, a production company whose niche of taking classic works of literature and transforming them into readily-accessible, addictive chunks of storytelling for online viewers to binge on and enjoy, has become a revolution in the way that we view modern media vehicles such as YouTube and classics such as Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and even Frankenstein.

For long, YouTube has been seen as a place where people complain and do stupid Internet stunts. Recently, however, YouTube has moved beyond that, using the potential of an accessible, free platform, to rise on the global stage as a purveyor of quality entertainment. Rising YouTube stars such as Zoella, Sprinkle of Glitter, and PewDiePie have become superstars, dominating global stages and conferences. It only stands to reason that the platform would become a place for new TV shows to spread their creative wings.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, based off Jane Austen’s flawless classic, Pride & Prejudice, follows the journey of Lizzie Bennet, here transformed from a young woman in 19th century England into a spunky 24-year-old American grad student, struggling to find her place in the world. The adaptation provides more than a mere glossy shine; racial and sexual diversity are key here, with key roles played by actors of colour, and a new character Fitz Williams is black and gay and a welcome addition.

From the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, other adaptations have sprung forth, in notable new directions. Spin-off web-series Welcome to Sanditon follows the original adventures of Gigi Darcy (Georgiana Darcy, played by Allison Paige) as she heads to small-town America to test forth a revolutionary search engine and social media messenger tool, and finds much more. Sanditon is a step forward for the group, making it web-series fanfic in a way purer to original fiction, transforming a secondary character into someone with her own vehicle and her own narrative away from the original. In this way it echoes Death Comes to Pemberley which utilises characters and settings in Pride and Prejudice.

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Web Series Mini Reviews: ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’, ‘The Most Popular Girls In School’, and More

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A while back I did a review of the web series The Outs. In that post, I mentioned that a lot of other web series were on their own level of quality, separate from TV. Resources and acting are a big part of what make shows good, and when you don’t have those things, even if the writing is good, the show will suffer.

The reason I wrote a full review of The Outs was because it held up against regular TV shows. However, not all web series are on the same level. Some use their weaknesses as strengths (such as telling the story through a fake vlog to save on production costs), while others completely buckle beneath the pressure of trying to hold up to TV standards.

Because I don’t want to do full reviews of every web series I’ve seen that aren’t TV quality, I figured I’d compile a list of some I’d seen lately and do some mini reviews:

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

If you can’t figure it out from the title, Lizzie Bennet is an online adaption of the classic Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Set in the modern day and told in the form of vlog recordings, the show explores the romantic intrigue in Lizzie Bennet’s (Ashley Clements) life. Her overbearing mom wants Lizzie and her three sisters to get married and start popping out babies as soon as possible, but Lizzie fights her every step of the way.

Eventually, she begins telling viewers about her sister’s new boyfriend, who just happens to know the infamous Mr. Darcy. From there on out it gets pretty spoilery (plus, you probably know what happens based on a ton of other adaptions).

The great thing about this show is the way it uses the video format. By vlogging, Lizzie is able to capture the style of free indirect speech from the novel. Also, it’s pretty fun seeing how the writers update the story and characters for the modern day.

Very Mary-Kate

This show was a little ahead of the curve, coming out a while before shows like Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 began spoofing the lives of real life celebrities.

This fictionalized version of Mary-Kate Olsen (Elaine Carroll) plays up all the rumored traits of the real celebrity: Essentially, she’s a pill-addicted, anorexic train wreck – and my god, is it hilarious.

This show is the perfect example of writing and acting overcoming resources. When Carroll is onscreen you’re glued to her. She is incredibly funny, and you’re guaranteed to miss the obviously green-screened background when she’s yapping away.

Some of the side characters (I’m looking at you, Bodyguard) are good ideas for personalities, but don’t hold up acting-wise. Still, it doesn’t matter too much since most of our time is spent with the priceless Mary-Kate character.

Husbands

This series makes me wonder if the freedom of the internet will lead many TV writers to start creating their own web content, since one of the creators is Jane Espenson (of Buffy fame).

Brad Bell (the other half of the creative team behind the show) and Sean Hemeon play newlyweds, in an alternate universe where gay couples have the right to marry.

Husbands is much better production-wise than either Lizzie Bennet or Very Mary-Kate, and it shows. You can definitely tell that professionals put this thing together, which means the show isn’t bad, but…well, I suppose it’s the lack of time they were able to put into it. The episodes are so short that each season of the show (two so far) are essentially each one episode of regular-length sitcom television.

In TV years, that’s barely an infant, and it shows. These characters don’t feel fully realized yet, and I don’t really care what happens to them right now. If given the proper screen time, I could really see myself falling in love with this show.

The Most Popular Girls in School

I hate to end this post on a sour note, but I have that kind of power, so I will.

There’s very little plot here, mostly just bitchy cheerleaders being bitchy to one another – over and over and over…

This show is… my god. When I first saw it, my immediate reaction was that it seemed like something that would easily fit on Adult Swim. Through stop-motion animation, the creators have brought to life anthropomorphic doll characters (Kind of like the Robot Chicken action figure stuff, right?).

This isn’t actually a plot point (it’s just used as a stand-in for animation) but it’s definitely the thing that brings the show down for me. I watched a “behind the scenes” video on the show, which explained that the dolls were originally going to be given animated mouths, but it was decided plain, unmoving doll faces were funnier.

While I can understand that line of thought for a one-off short, devising an entire show around props that are incapable of showing emotion just seems crazy to me.

Add that on top of the fact all the characters just seem like one massive, single bitch-monster of a person, instead of separate entities with varying personality traits, and you have a product that I’m not a huge fan of.

Biting one liners can only get you so far in my book.