I was so excited to watch the Lizzie Bennet Diaries – Pride and Prejudice told as an ongoing YouTube vlog – when I first heard of it, but I just couldn’t get invested. I kept trying to come back to it but in the end I just stopped watching.
In the interests of this project, though, I came back to it knowing I had to make it to video 100. And, somewhere along the way, I did find myself choosing to press play and actually enjoying it.
My name is Sasha Sienna and…I guess I liked the Lizzie Bennet Diaries?
I’m being unfair. I did like it. But I also think it was over-hyped and it took a long time to grow on me.
For starters, it’s too long. The total running time of all 100 episodes is 7 hours and 22 minutes. That’s the longest running time of any Jane Austen adaptation that I’m aware of (and I have a spreadsheet) – and that’s if you don’t watch the 60 or so supplemental videos that tell parts of the story from Lydia, Charlotte or Gigi (Georgiana)’s perspective. A lot of that runtime could have been cut from the first quarter of the story. It’s an incredibly slow start. It takes two of the early videos to give us information that takes three sentences in the book. Combined with the fact that you don’t actually see any of the action, just hear about it second hand, the first hour and a half of watching feels achingly uneventful. Once Jane and Lizzie get to Netherfield, things do start picking up and enough of the story starts actually happening on-screen from about halfway through, but it feels a bit like getting over a hurdle to make it to that point.
In fact, it takes this show a while to work itself out in every respect. Early episodes suffer from a contrived and stilted script, and performances that just aren’t naturalistic enough to pull off the premise. The vlog is presented as a project for Lizzie’s grad studies in mass communications and it seems like making the adaptation itself was an educational project for its creators. It feels amateurish compared to other adaptations made for film or TV. But, the thing is, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries wasn’t made for film or TV. It was made for YouTube, and when the platform was only seven years old. That’s not enough time for a medium to mature! There’s just so much gold made for television at the moment – we’re really nailing that these days (I say ‘we’ the species, I take no credit for how good TV is). But it’s taken us a long time to get to that point. Video sharing platforms are much newer and of course the content creators working on it will be less skilled than those working in TV, who have decades of work to build on. And in a way, that’s also what made the show so popular to begin with – it’s super innovative. Nothing like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries had ever been done before and, OK, it took them a little while to figure out how to do it right, but they did figure it out by the end.
The show’s actually at its strongest when it veers from the book. It’s fantastic at putting the details of the original into a new context. Mr Collins becomes an inexperienced CEO, with Catherine de Bourgh as his micromanaging venture capitalist, and his marriage proposals become job offers. George Wickham isn’t a soldier, but a swimming instructor and Denny’s is now a bar (this is actually pretty in line with how a lot of soldiers behaved and were viewed while they were traipsing from English village to English village). Kitty is sort of present, but she’s Lydia’s cat. I was kind of hoping they’d make Charlotte definitely a lesbian but there are no clues either way. Fitz (Colonel Fitzwilliam) is gay though, which is the perfect reason for him to not be an excellent love interest for Lizzie, and Craig Frank’s easy and likeable portrayal is the best performance in the series. The show makes a few calls that personally didn’t work for me (I can’t imagine super-sweet Jane working in fashion and spent the first third of the show under the entirely unjustified assumption she was a vet), but they don’t matter – the fun of the series is that it plays around so much with the source material.
I hate to type this but I do have to say it: there were two things I just wasn’t sold on by video 100 and, unfortunately, those two things are Lizzie and Darcy. First of all, they’ve presented Darcy as intensely socially awkward. As I mentioned in my review of Bridge and Prejudice, my reading of the book is that he can be charming, he’s just such a snob that he chooses not to be (at first). Book-Darcy is an excellent dancer, once he gets on the floor. Vlog-Darcy is heavily implied to have less than no rhythm. There’s definitely space in the text to read Darcy as a bit of a clumsy stiff with a heart of gold, but here’s the thing: that’s just not sexy. Bad dancing isn’t sexy. Reservation can be sexy, even arrogance sometimes, but not knowing how to interact with other people is just not very attractive (to me, but also to most other people I’ve met).
Edit: since writing this review, I’ve come to realise I was quite hard line in my view of Darcy while I was still figuring out my view of this interpretation. I’m going to keep this review as is because it’s important to acknowledge when you’ve revised or changed your opinions without writing over your old ones.
The thing that makes this Lizzie less likeable than the original is pretty unavoidable. It’s the vlogging. It’s not the fact that she has a vlog, but the fact that she spends the vast majority of the vlog talking about other people’s personal lives on the internet. To its credit, the series does acknowledge that that’s a pretty crappy thing for Lizzie to do and in later episodes she really does engage with it, but having a character choose to do this at all is going to make me like and respect them less. Seriously, vlog-Lizzie, do you have so little going on in your own life that the best thing you can talk about to the internet is your sister’s (frankly unremarkable at this point) proto-romance? It’s ironic that she spends so much time on it, while criticising her mother for her over-zealous interest in Jane and Bing. I’d have loved to seen the writing play with this contrast a bit, but I got the feeling they just weren’t aware of it.
While there’s a lot to criticise here, I have to say I feel a bit bad about pointing out the show’s flaws. Even though I really didn’t enjoy the first quarter or so of the episodes, I was pretty charmed by the series overall. I’m left with fond memories of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but no desire for a rewatch.
Sexiness of leading man 4/5
Daniel Vincent Gordh is a good-looking man who appears too uncomfortable to be really attractive in this adaptation. But Christopher Sean’s Bing Lee is hot enough that I’m adding an extra point in here, even though he’s not technically the romantic lead.
Likeability of leading lady 3/5
Alright, she’s not as likeable as the Lizzie Bennet Jane Austen wrote but that’s a ridiculously high bar.
Austenly vibes 2/5
Obviously, not very Austenly at all – that’s kind of the point. But they capture the spirit of all the events of the book pretty well and the two leads do have good chemistry.
Side characters 4/5
They’re very good., including Mr & Mrs Bennet, who we don’t technically ever see on screen.
I was really unsure how to rate this category because the series improves so much over time. My recommendation: read the Wikipedia page, then start at episode 27. It’ll keep getting better from there.
Likeability of leading man 4/5
Most of the times we see Darcy on-screen, he’s ‘post-reform’ and trying really hard, which is very endearing.
Sexiness of leading lady 3.5/5
Ashley Clements is very attractive, though not particularly my type.
Faithfulness to the text 3/5
OK, obviously it’s not that faithful to the text because it’s set in the modern US and it’s, you know, a Youtube vlog. BUT, they really do manage to keep the foundations there! They change pretty much all the details but they do a great job of changing them to things that are actually really good modern-day analogues of the original details. They even manage to keep the famous opening line.
Modern Sensibilities 5/5
Obviously this is way more diverse and feminist and queer-friendly than the original text. I did waver on the fifth star because of a very uncomfortable scene with a dodgy afro wig but, since 99.9% of the show is as close as we’re going to get with this category, I’ve rounded up.
Edited again: I also think I went too easy on the wig. That shit’s inextricably linked to pervasive racism and anti-blackness and it’s not cool.