Review: Comedy · Review: Romance

Web Series Review: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries vs. Welcome to Sanditon

Once again proving that sticking to books is an impossibility in this modern age, I’m taking on a completely different medium. Now, I should note that I call this a review, but it’s really more of a critique (but I persist in calling it a review since I’ve already gone that route with Hikaru no Go).

Now, as you might have inferred from the fact that I’ve reviewed a “literary” sequel and a fanfic of the thing, I (along with about 80% of the women who’ve ever read it) am a fan of Pride and Prejudice. I’ve seen about six of the many movie/TV adaptations, and was a huge fan of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries throughout its run. I even thought about reviewing it, but ultimately decided against it. Why? I’ve made a point so far of not reviewing classic literature. It’s a huge can of worms to open: people have written Ph.D. dissertations analyzing these books. There is nothing that I can contribute that hasn’t already been said.

Generally, with a few exceptions (such as my review of Easy A), I take the same approach to adaptations of classic literature. Unlike fairy tales, which are simplistic tales with multiple variations that can be interpreted and expanded on in a million different ways, classic literature tends by definition to be complete within itself.

A fairy tale may make you ask questions like, “Why would anyone do that?” or “That sounds like a really stupid solution to that problem.” or “That character is so static!” but it’s not something you can really complain about, or critique. They tend to be stories told to exemplify a moral, or to be some random jumble of various oral traditions smashed together into a somewhat coherent story that ceases to make sense the moment you start thinking about it. But that’s only to be expected of fairy tales. Classic literature, by contrast, is something to be inspected closely and analyzed. These are works written by a single person as a complete story. Layers of meaning can be taken out of a simple metaphor. Where adaptation of a fairy tale can take on an infinite number of forms depending on how the storyteller chooses to round out a flat story, adaptations of classic literature tend to seem blatantly shallower than the original (as with Easy A), or tonally dissonant with its source material (as with Death Comes to Pemberley).

So when I first debated this, I decided not to review the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. I liked it, and it was a fresh, new way to tell a story that has so deeply ingrained itself into the modern psyche that it has become the backbone for nearly every romantic comedy filmed or published.

And then Welcome to Sanditon began. At present, its pilot has 77 thousand views; the second episode has 52 thousand, and decreases progressively from there to 21 thousand views for episode 12 and 15 thousand for episode 13. Bear in mind that this is in contast to the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, whose least watched Q&A episodes still have over 125 thousand views. (The pilot, for reference, has over a million views.) I’ve given Sanditon the benefit of the doubt up to this point, but my hopes have thus far been in vain. As of yesterday, we’re 13 episodes in. Now I’ve decided that it’s time to review it. Not to talk about how much I don’t like it, but to analyze why it’s failing as much as it is.

Now, bear in mind that I’ve never read Sanditon, and have no intention of doing so in the near future. But I’d argue that that means nothing. I’m a firm believer in adaptations being contained within themselves, but I also acknowledge that there are plenty of films out there that are practically impossible to comprehend unless you’ve already read the book. Ghibli’s Tales from Earthsea is my flagship example of this one. But this is not Welcome to Sanditon’s problem.

The story isn’t incomprehensible. It’s just boring. I don’t think it has anything to do with the source material.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up the source material. In fact, it’s necessary when updating the setting of a story by two centuries. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries accomplished this masterfully. While the marriage-obsessed mother was, as many pointed out, a lot more “psycho” when portrayed in the modern day as opposed to in the Regency era when a woman’s future was defined by her marriage, they turned this into a funny quirk. All the other characters are updated and modernized, and the focus is more on the sisters’ relationship than the romance. Certainly, it’s the romances that drive the plot; but Lydia’s subplot, while only serving to further the internal conflict in Elizabeth and Darcy’s not-yet-begun relationship in the original, is more about Lydia as a person, and her relationship with her sisters. All at once, Lydia—the annoying, flat sister from the novel—is a flawed human being. And so is Lizzie.

We couldn’t have known how the story would take its course, or how masterfully the writers would flesh out Lydia. In the beginning, people complained about Lizzie’s comments about Lydia being a “slut,” and about her lack of understanding of Lydia’s choices and lifestyle. But these were character flaws, not writing flaws. They made the characters human. Certainly, they confused some of us in the beginning, when we didn’t know what to expect. But the very strong (and ultimately realized) potential was there.

The thing about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, though, was that it was character-oriented. It was Lizzie’s vlog, and right from episode 1, we have a sardonic, funny, witty character to latch on to. Charlotte’s dry wit and editing humor added to it, and the relationship between all three sisters was already there, each with distinct, strong characters. So we had 4 characters—exactly the same as Sandition had before yesterday’s episode 13—but it was already compelling in a way that Sanditon simply isn’t.

Well, Sanditon isn’t going the same character-driven route as the LBD (yes, I’m finally resorting to abbreviation). It is ambitiously embarking on a story about a community as a whole.

My heart is breaking a little to watch how much of a disaster this series is becoming, because I really wanted it to succeed. I still want it to succeed, even as that looks less and less likely. I agree that doing the same thing again and again is not at all fulfilling as an artist, and eventually boring as a fan. When, in episode 1, it was established that this was going to be a community-oriented story, I was on the edge of my seat.

I wish I could say that it just isn’t compelling because I was anticipating too much. There’s still time for it to change and improve, but at the moment…there is nothing that can make it seem compelling.

Here’s a breakdown of the elements piece-by-piece. I’m primarily only addressing the first 13 episodes of the LBD in comparison with Sanditon.

The Main Character

This is more vital in a vlog-style web series than any other medium, because mostly you’re just watching this person talk.

The LBD understood this very, very well, and Lizzie Bennet was ideal for this style. She was opinionated, biased, imperfect but charismatic and compelling. She expressed opinions that we as viewers could snort at and go, “Oh, you narrow-minded person”—and that was okay, because in some ways she was. A lot of those narrow-minded views became plot points, and we could watch her grow as a person.

Gigi Darcy, by comparison, simply isn’t as compelling. During the LBD, I know I’m not alone in saying that she was a wonderful beloved character. We could enjoy her character arc, because we were watching her confront a personal ghost that had been built up in Lizzie’s side of the story, and we cheered her on.

But, as in Austen’s story, apart from that dark smudge on her past named George Wickham, Georgiana Darcy is the epitome of feminine perfection. And while she could still be compelling in the LBD as the in-story Lizzie/Darcy shipper with the horrible ex; as the bouncy, happy, cheerful character amongst a lot of maudlin characters…when it’s just her, talking to a brother we never see… Meh.

I should say, I think we all noticed that one deus ex machina of a “character flaw” in episode 9 when she talked about the “glitch.” And while I suppose that obliviousness would fit with her past of being fooled by Wickham, weren’t we supposed to understand from Gigi’s character arc in the LBD that she confronted her past and grew stronger? Does this not include a desire to better observe people? It wasn’t even just subtext that she was missing there. It was text.

The Supporting Cast

Jane was the epitome of perfection and Lydia was a stereotypical party girl. Charlotte was the calm, rational one who did things in the background, while Lizzie was the idealistic, slightly egotistical one who enjoyed being in front of the camera. Stereotypical and/or predictable? Yes. Nevertheless dynamic and interesting? Yes.

In Sanditon, we have Mayor Parker, who for some reason wants to change the entire town to “modernize” it, even though the citizens as a whole don’t seem to like this very much. By which I mean at all. (How did he get elected…?) We have Clara, who runs an ice cream shop and occasionally provides ice cream “recipes” and doesn’t want to be a juice bar because she likes ice cream. She seems to like Ed, who is assistant to the mayor (without appearing to be all that fond of him), a geek, and seems to like Clara back. We have Gigi, the “objective observer” who apparently so rarely leaves her hotel room that it took her a week or two after arriving in Sanditon to realize that the map was completely, entirely wrong. As of today, we have the Griffith siblings, who are business competitors. We also have the “citizens” who appear every other Thursday to give us a feel for the general views on things in the town.

The Relationships Among the Cast

This was a huge one in LBD. Charlotte and Lizzie’s teasing but close friendship, Jane and Lizzie’s mutual love, Lydia and Lizzie’s mocking of each other’s lifestyles had already been established by episode 2. By now (by which I mean, by episode 13), so had the relationships between Lizzie’s parents, between Lizzie and Charlotte’s mothers, between Lizzie and her mother, between Jane and Bing… And these were the major drive to watch the series. The characters were just people, with relationships and feelings, and the Lizzie-Darcy conflict was practically secondary. Which was tantalizing, but ultimately worked.

In Sandition, as mentioned previously, Mayor Parker is terrorizing the town with some baseless compulsion for radical change. The ice cream parlor must become a juice bar or the world will end! The map must match what he wants, and not what’s actually there! I’m sure that they intend to address the basis of this compulsion eventually, but after nearly two months of watching this random terrorization that has no basis in reality…it’s old. It’s static. It’s not compelling in any way. It creates conflict, but even the conflict is boring, because every argument with the mayor seems to go exactly the same way: “You’re not seeing the future.”

Clara and Ed’s “romance” was kind of soured by Gigi’s bizarre degree of obliviousness for me, but I know that there were people who found this compelling. Ed’s conflict with the mayor is not at all subtle, but compared to the mayor’s conflict with Clara (and the rest of Sanditon), it does begin to seem subtle and therefore more interesting. And, as previously mentioned, we have the Griffith siblings as business competitors. Which apparently surprised the mayor. Maybe the name Griffith is the Sanditon equivalent of Smith?

And finally, we have Gigi, who has been in Sanditon for 2 months and still doesn’t seem to know anyone beyond her biweekly conversations with them that we observe through Domino. She doesn’t even talk to or about any friends. I get that it’s supposed to be about Sanditon and not her, but are we honestly supposed to believe that she’s not getting to know anyone very well at all? Even if it’s not her story, she’s still functioning as our narrator, and her utter, complete, unchanging cluelessness as well as her disconnect from the rest of the cast are beginning to take their tolls on me as a viewer. Are we supposed to believe that she does nothing but attempt to call the mayor, try to explore the town once a week or less, and spend the rest of her time moderating Domino (since it’s allegedly self-editing) or working on grad school applications? She’s certainly not out getting to know the community. The tantalizing mentions of Gigi’s personal life are, in my opinion, not fleshing out her character at all. Instead they’re detracting from the story being told, emphasizing how little she’s interacting with the rest of our cast, and making the entire thing seem more disconnected and scatterbrained.

The Plot

Well, with LBD it was Pride and Prejudice. We all knew where it was going from the beginning. Not much to say about that.

With Sanditon…I have no idea where it’s going. At the moment, the story isn’t making me care where it’s going. If anything, I wince at the thought of where it seems to be going, because it’s driving its plot by overt, over-the-top conflict in characters that we know nothing about beyond the conflict they’re engaging in.

Then there are the “recipes” and the “citizens.” I get what they’re trying to do, I really do. And to be fair, if we look at the first recipe as a setup for the second, then we can see the second as an excellent (and funny) expression of Clara’s frustration with the mayor’s refusal to listen to her. Which honestly would be more interesting if the mayor had been given some concrete reason for trying to tear down people’s ways of life the way he is.

And the citizens… Is there a single person who enjoys these episodes, who is not in these episodes? I found the first one boring, but lauded it as a vehicle for painting a community’s outlook as a whole. The second one surprised me, because I was certain it was a one-time thing. Then there came a third, and the moment the “citizens” came on I turned it off. It’s a nice way to involve their hard-core fans, and a great idea. My beef with this is that it’s not being used as supplementary storytelling like Twitter and Tumblr, where it belongs. Instead it’s making its way into the flimsy, artificial conflict we’re calling a storyline and taking the spot of actual videos, creating a very…annoying state. If you skipped these videos, you really wouldn’t lose anything. They aren’t actual “characters,” and while it’s a nice idea in the respect that it keeps the audience from asking the question, “why is this town-wide Domino initiative only involving 6 people?” the storylines of those 6 people are so flimsy at the moment that I’d rather they worked on fleshing those out.

Conclusion

Telling a community-based story is not easy. It’s not a problem unique to a web series: it’s even difficult in literature and film. It by definition requires a larger cast, and multiple storylines and subplots. Those storylines and subplots may or may not converge into a bigger storyline in the end. There are any number of ways to do this, but no easy one.

At the moment, Sanditon is not succeeding at being the story that it’s trying to be. At present, there isn’t a single coherent, rational plotline that I can discern (with the exception of the Clara/Ed attraction, if you consider that a plotline). Its narrator is increasingly inactive and distracting, and its conflicts are over-the-top and feel forced.

But LBD had some of these problems in the beginning as well, which ultimately worked out as they became plot points. Maybe the mayor’s irrational behavior is the result of a brain tumor. Maybe one of the Griffith siblings has been using a fake name. Maybe one of them blames the other for a parent’s death.

While Sanditon will probably never be the success that the LBD proved to be, there is still potential for it to make of itself a coherent and even good story. Here’s hoping that that potential is realized…soon.

Edit: 5 Jul. 2013

The plot has now begun to unfold. And, this plot revolving around the Clara/Ed drama, it’s probably the most appealing part of the show so far that is developing. Unfortunately, the video(s) since has (have) not been as…gripping. Why am I swaying between singular and plural? Well, it seems to me that the best way to approach this new series is to just treat the Monday episodes as story, and the Thursday episodes as filler. Which they are, honestly, and have always been. Anyone could skip the Thursday episodes and lose nothing. Yes, the “citizens” lend some credibility to the idea that this is a community-wide project as opposed to when it was just Lizzie’s vlog.

And given that this is the case…well, the story is moving more slowly because it only has half the time that the LBD had. So I’m going to sit tight and see how this plays out.

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2 thoughts on “Web Series Review: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries vs. Welcome to Sanditon

  1. I’m going to ask a very, very stupid question: what the heck is Sanditon? I saw all the LBD episodes multiple times and loved the series very much. But I’ve heard Sanditon referenced in relation to LBD many times, but have no idea what it is and how it relates. Can you please explain this because I feel like I’m the odd one out in the fandom…. :S

    1. It’s a little snippet they did where Gigi Darcy goes to a community armed with Domino (the storytelling app from LBD) and tells the “story of the community” as part of the app’s beta-test. It was short and…relatively to the point, with a cast even smaller than LBD, but accentuated by added involvement of the fans as part of the “community.”

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