Webseries phenom The Lizzie Bennet Diaries made it to 100 entries (and beyond)

Webseries phenom The Lizzie Bennet Diaries made it to 100 entries (and beyond)

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

At first glance, it would appear that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries earns the rare distinction of having exactly 100 episodes.

On March 28, 2013, roughly fifty weeks after its debut on April 9, 2012, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries released its 100th episode, bringing to an end its video-blog adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride And Prejudice. Positioned as a thesis project turned life story, the webseries debuted two episodes a week on YouTube, reframing Austen’s Elizabeth as a southern California graduate student (Ashley Clements) who uses YouTube to reflect on the lives and loves of those around her, including her sisters Jane (Laura Spencer) and Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles), and her friend Charlotte (Julia Cho). In the first episode, “My Name Is Lizzie Bennet,” Lizzie is documenting what she believes is her mundane existence, where the arrival of a rich young bachelor is just another opportunity for her mother’s obsession with marrying off her daughters to manifest. But by episode 100, “The End,” Lizzie has documented a life-changing series of events, both professionally and personally, including—but not limited to—her relationship with wealthy web-video magnate William Darcy (Daniel Vincent Gordh).

Yet episode 100 was not really the 100th episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. To consider it as such would ignore the 10 “Questions And Answers” videos posted by Lizzie, drawing fan questions from YouTube comments and the characters’ in-world Twitter and Tumblr accounts. It would also ignore the seven videos posted by Charlotte’s sister Maria during Charlotte’s time working for Mr. Collins, the two in-world videos created by Collins’ company during the series’ run, and the six videos by William’s sister Gigi documenting her brother’s efforts to save Lydia’s reputation following George Wickham’s deceit. It would also, most importantly, elide the 34 videos posted by Lydia, a parallel webseries—The Lydia Bennet—in which the vulnerabilities of a carefree soul are laid bare.

Some would argue these additional 59 videos are not “episodes” in the same way the 100 entries in Lizzie’s video diary are, that they’re more similar to the derivative video content often attached to broadcast or cable series—for example, webisodes tied to series like The Office or The Walking Dead—than episodes proper. It is difficult to argue with these claims, because defining web video is an inherently slippery task. The medium is a sprawling intersection of different forms, similar enough to television to transfer nomenclature, yet distinct enough to trouble such transfers (and to make traditional framing of the syndication threshold irrelevant). However, no matter what these videos are, they are far from derivative, having been carefully designed to enrich and connect with the narrative of the series as a whole. They are products of what has been termed “transmedia storytelling,” a way of discussing narratives that span across multiple platforms, not as the result of producers chasing after emerging trends in digital distribution, but rather through producers taking into account the distinct qualities of those platforms in planning and executing a single story.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an inherently transmedia story, spanning multiple YouTube channels and a collection of in-world social-media accounts such that it becomes constricting to think of it in terms of “episodes.” Not only does doing so call into question the 59 videos that operate outside of Lizzie’s diary, but it also ignores that “The End” wasn’t actually the end: The final piece of the narrative puzzle wasn’t a video at all, but rather a Twitter postscript featuring photos from a party the characters held to celebrate the conclusion of the video diary. By developing stories that intersected with the audience’s own social-media habits, producer/showrunner Bernie Su and web mega-producer Hank Green—along with their writing staff and media team—made it possible for viewers to become part of Lizzie’s story; the result was a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, an Emmy Award for Original Interactive Program, and the launch of two subsequent video-blog-driven Austen adaptations (Welcome To Sanditon, based on Austen’s unfinished novel, and the ongoing Emma Approved, which returns from hiatus today).

Those basic facts are what make The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a landmark webseries, memorable for its longevity (in terms of number of episodes), its ingenuity, and its popularity, with more than 1.5 million views of its first episode and more than 500,000 for its 100th. Without the benefit of a corporate partner like Yahoo! (Burning Love), or the support of a major studio (FOX’s WIGS channel), the series became a cult phenomenon with a devoted fanbase, a case study for how to tap into the expansive potential of the webseries form.

However, it would do a disservice to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to simply treat it as a case study. In an emerging form like the webseries, there is a tendency to think of each success as a model for future efforts, a turning point in an ongoing narrative of the medium’s development—even the choice to highlight a webseries here in 100 Episodes is at least in part a token gesture to acknowledge the medium, with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a useful entry point for that conversation. When boiling a series down to basic facts, though, it risks being reduced to data that can be mined for future webseries, inspiring other producers—and other corporations—to emulate what makes a series like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries successful; this is useful, but it doesn’t capture the series’ greater impact. Although the basic structure and format of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is what garnered it media attention and critical acclaim, ultimately its stories are what connected with audiences. Without them, this would have just been an experiment.

Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice is an iconic story that can cross boundaries of time and culture to resonate with audiences; it’s been adapted countless times—the iconic BBC miniseries, Joe Wright’s feature film, Gurinder Chadha’s Bollywood interpretation, to name but a few. In its choice to tell the story entirely through direct-address video blogs set in the present day, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries takes a contemporary approach, weaving details and dialogue from the novels with storylines and characterization that better reflects 21st-century sensibilities. The webseries remains faithful enough to its source material that the basic plot still falls into place, and clever changes like turning Pemberley into Darcy’s media company rather than Darcy’s sprawling estate (which would make little sense removed from the English countryside and transplanted to southern California) were savvy decisions.

Yet, thinking back upon other adaptations of Austen’s novel, what stands out about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is that it isn’t a love story. Yes, Lizzie Bennet eventually looks past her first impression of the socially inept William Darcy to discover a kindhearted man she loves and who loves her as well, and the characters spend much of their time reflecting on the courtship of Lizzie’s sister Jane and Darcy’s close friend Bing Lee (recasting the character and his sister as Asian-American to reflect southern California’s diversity). However, while Lizzie’s story undoubtedly concerns love, it is not about romantic love, at least not in the way other adaptations of the story have been memorialized through their depictions of Elizabeth and Darcy. Gordh’s William appears in only 10 of the series’ 100 main episodes; he’s physically absent until episode 60, in fact. As much as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries tells that story well—withholding Bing Lee and Darcy to build anticipation and eventually allowing Lizzie to balance her career and her relationship—it’s far from the only story worth telling, and is arguably the most straightforward element of the adaptation.

Where The Lizzie Bennet Diaries stands out is in telling a story about female friendship and sisterhood, expanding the characters of Charlotte and Lydia and rescuing them from a broader social treatise on love and marriage. In Charlotte’s case, the character gains an expanded role as Lizzie’s close friend and editor of the videos. Her departure with Mr. Collins (Maxwell Glick) becomes a key thread in the series’ interest in Lizzie’s career as well as her love life. Mr. Collins arrives with a job offer instead of a marriage proposal, and Charlotte’s choice to take it speaks not of her desperation to settle down, but rather her ambition to take a leap of faith as a content producer supporting herself and her family. The dissolution of their friendship before Charlotte’s departure for Collins & Collins is one of the series’ finest episodes, revealing the difficulty of balancing friendship with the goals and opinions of two individuals whose lives will not always be as connected as they were when the videos began.

It’s the kind of conversation I wish would have accompanied news of Ann Perkins’ exit from Pawnee on Parks And Recreation, a storyline with similar emotions of selfishness and agency that was handled much more broadly (and was more reflective of gender roles from Jane Austen’s time than our own, given Ann’s reasons for leaving). By comparison, the raw emotion of Lizzie and Charlotte’s estrangement—captured so well by Clements and Cho—makes their eventual reconciliation more powerful, and creates a friendship that the show relies on right up until Charlotte’s final appearance in “The End.”

The other character to appear alongside Lizzie in “The End” isn’t her beau William Darcy, or her elder sister Jane, but rather her younger sister Lydia. Traditionally positioned as the cautionary tale whose social frivolity tarnishes the Bennet family name, Lydia begins The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in a similar position (although reimagined as a college student). She is the party girl who crashes Lizzie’s videos, always pushing for nights out at the bar and dialing up the “adorbs” to obnoxious levels; whereas Lizzie sees Jane as one of her best friends, she views Lydia as a problem to solve, a sisterly burden she needs to take care of to keep her from hurting herself (and, tied to this, the family). She is the prototypical third sister—the novel’s fourth and fifth sisters, Mary and Kitty, are transformed into a cousin and a cat, respectively—who is separated enough from her older siblings to feel more like a tagalong than a confidante. When Lizzie and Jane leave for Netherfield to stay with Bing and Caroline (and Darcy), the primary narrative leaves Lydia behind, sending her off to stay with her parents—who (almost) never appear onscreen—and her cousin Mary.

That Lydia’s story continues in the form of The Lydia Bennet is at first another sign of her narcissism, a cry for attention she’d lost since she wouldn’t be able to appear for her fans in Lizzie’s videos. But as the videos continue and Lydia and Mary strike up a tentative friendship, the spin-off webseries become a window into the reasons why Lydia is Lydia. In “Babysitting,” one of the most meaningful episodes of the series as a whole, Lydia tells Mary the story of how she got fired from her babysitting job, a tale that not so subtly indicates Lydia’s place within the Bennet family.

Lydia’s arc examines what it means to be an adult, a subject within which perception is often more powerful than reality. She wants to be treated like an adult, everyone around her wants her to start acting like one, and neither side can fully acknowledge the other. Even as Lydia starts going to classes more regularly and getting better grades, Lizzie still gifts her a book on how to grow up. The gift only expands the rift between the sisters, creating the series’ most engaging narrative device: As Lizzie does research at Pemberley and begins to connect with Darcy, Lydia’s videos catalog a spontaneous trip to Las Vegas and a new relationship with black sheep George Wickham. As Lizzie’s videos reveal the depths of Wickham’s mistreatment of Darcy’s sister Gigi, Lydia’s show her finally finding someone who she believes respects her, and who makes her feel like an adult in the way she wants her sister to. For those watching both sisters’ videos, episode 84, “Ugh,” is a tragic convergence of the two stories, as Lizzie—who had not spoken to Lydia since Christmas—learns that Wickham is promoting a Lydia Bennet sex tape.

This tragedy pulls the series toward its conclusion, reuniting the three sisters under terrible circumstances and kicking off the final act of the story. It’s a pivotal moment for Lydia as a character, and for Mary Kate Wiles as an actress, finally breaking down the charade of the party girl to reveal the vulnerability—and, eventually, strength—underneath. It’s the series’ most substantial and successful extension of Austen’s story world, spearheaded by Wiles and The Lydia Bennet writer Rachel Kiley.

Some viewers may not have experienced this arc in full if their focus is on the “main” episodes. It is tempting to consider The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a clearly bounded textual object: Now that the series has concluded, the YouTube playlists or iTunes downloads or soon-to-be-released Kickstarter DVD make binge-watching the series possible. It can be compared as a “text” alongside other adaptations of the novel. However, in watching the narrative unfold, there are consistent reminders that this was designed as an experience, an evolving narrative that was about involving viewers in an ongoing story and encouraging them to eagerly anticipate each new episode, or follow along with each new Twitter conversation.

It is nearly impossible to capture that element when you have the ability to jump ahead to each new episode, but it would be equally difficult to generalize about the experience of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries when it was airing. One of the biggest challenges with telling sprawling transmedia stories is the need to create experiences that can scale with viewers, such that those who only have time to watch two 5-minute YouTube videos a week and those who follow Kitty Bennett—the aforementioned feline—on Twitter can both feel connected to the storytelling.

Newcomers to the series can ostensibly experience one narrative of the webseries by watching only Lizzie’s 100 videos; there are even CliffsNotes versions available, like this abridged playlist that promotes itself as for those who don’t have time to watch the whole series and can fill in the gaps with their knowledge of Austen’s novel, or this playlist that features key videos in the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy (or “Dizzie”). Although it takes only nine hours to watch all 159 videos, roughly equivalent to a single season of a cable drama, it’s likely only a small percentage of those viewers who saw the series to its conclusion consumed each and every minute of the series—the videos posted by Charlotte’s sister Maria, exploring Charlotte’s fractured relationship with Lizzie from Collins & Collins, averaged only around 70,000 views.

It’s a reminder that beyond Lizzie and Darcy, beyond Charlotte and Lydia, and beyond Jane and Bing, there’s another character to consider when evaluating the experience of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. As the series progresses, the characters continually refer to their “viewers.” Those viewers’ curiosity results in the introduction of the aforementioned Questions And Answers videos, where viewers’ cheeky references to the original source material and Internet randomness make their way into the story world. Their insistence on seeing characters like Bing and Darcy in the videos influences Lizzie’s decision-making, pushing her to post private moments having come to understand that the videos have become bigger than any one person, herself included.

As people continue to fall down the YouTube rabbit hole of Lizzie’s diaries, and potentially the other videos attached to them, the most important thing to remember is that those viewers are not fictional. They are real people following a fictional webseries as opposed to a personal diary, aware that what they were seeing was a production, but their act of following along week-after-week, or interacting with the characters on Twitter, or commenting on YouTube, was central to their viewing experience.

Although this engagement remains documented through the Q&A videos, it is much harder to access for those who weren’t watching as the series aired. As someone who came to the series late in its run, “catching up” didn’t involve going through every character’s Twitter account, though the producers have collected Storify archives of each important conversation for viewers to peruse. The fact is archives of interactivity are never particularly interactive, such that experiencing The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in the same way as those who were watching from the beginning is impossible; one of the factors that made the series so innovative—and was central to its Emmy win—is unattainable for new viewers.

This is no different than any series—web or television—that has reached its conclusion: Once a series ends, the control shifts over the viewer, who can skip episodes that seem boring, or watch everything out of order. This makes it important to document narratives (like Lydia’s) that a viewer could miss watching only The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and to push back against efforts to paint the series as Lizzie and Darcy’s story when the female characters are much more important to its central narrative, albeit often in episodes not as integral to the “plot.” To fully understand the significance of this smart adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, it is necessary to embrace the full picture, and anyone who wants to experience it for themselves will need to hunt down all 159 of these “episodes.”

However, to enjoy The Lizzie Bennet Diaries does not require such dedication. It’s possible to enjoy the show by just watching the “Dizzie” videos and witnessing the great chemistry between Clements and Gordh. Lydia is enjoyable as a supporting character without exploring the videos where Wiles takes on a leading role. As much as its accomplishments are best understood as grand experiments in storytelling that explore the narrative potential of web video and transmedia, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is also a well-made adaptation of Pride And Prejudice that deserves the basic distinction of being an engaging story well told.

Next time: SpongeBob SquarePants

Filed Under: TV

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