The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was always going to be a hard act to follow. Cleverly written and well-acted, LBD retold the story of Pride and Prejudice through the video diaries of a twenty-something communications grad student in contemporary California, supplemented with videos, Twitter messages and Tumblr posts ascribed to various secondary characters. I was one of the insanely large number of fans – more than two hundred thousand YouTube subscribers! – who tuned in to LBD’s one hundred three-to-five-minute-long episodes, posted online between April 2012 and March 2013. I helped a Kickstarter campaign last spring raise nearly $460,000 – almost eight times the target amount – to pay for a DVD package. I refuse to admit how excited I was when an LBD panel was added to the program at next month’s conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America. (But – do you think Darcy’s going to be there?) Against that backdrop, it’s been a tad dispiriting this summer to watch the LBD team’s follow-up Austen-based web series, Welcome to Sanditon, fall flat.
Sanditon was an intriguing choice for an adaptation. Unlike the familiar and beloved P&P, the original is a little-known fragment, the manuscript Austen was working on when her fatal illness overtook her at forty-one. Although she left behind twelve wickedly satirical chapters, introducing a level-headed heroine and a gallery of amusing secondary characters living in an up-and-coming seaside resort in Sussex, Sanditon breaks off before Austen’s story really gets going; it’s hard to know in what direction she planned to proceed. No doubt that’s why Sanditon has inspired more than a dozen completions and spinoffs, most of which I reviewed this summer, in the Sanditon Summer blog series that began with this post. WTS, which ended Monday after its twenty-seventh episode, aimed to make a virtue out of Sanditon’s open-endedness. The premise of the show – Gigi Darcy, the LBD hero’s little sister, spends a summer in Sanditon, California, beta-testing Domino, a new video-conferencing application produced by her big brother’s digital media company – was designed to license vast amounts of audience participation. Fans were encouraged to invent personae – Sanditon “townspeople” – and tweet in character, or upload their own videos to a special “Domino Beta Portal.” And the fans, more than six hundred of them, responded. So many created fictitious Twitter identities in the first few days after WTS issued its audience-participation invitation that Twitter began suspending the new accounts, assuming a spambot must be at work. Twitter accounts sprang up for people called Leonardo Harley, Evanna Nightingale and Dr. Ptolemy Hartzog, and for Sanditon’s own circus, literary journal, synagogue and exorcism society – even for the Sanditon Ghost, tweeting from beyond the grave. One enterprising group invented an entire web-based romance for two townspeople, Annabell Smith and Horace Jones (Horace? Is anyone named Horace any more?), complete with multi-character tweets, Tumblr posts and heartfelt LiveJournal entries. Adopting LBD’s two-episodes-a-week format, WTS dedicated its Mondays to plot development, in segments written, shot and acted by professionals, and turned over many of its Thursday slots to this outpouring of amateur fan creativity. Alas, none of it really worked. With no Austen plot to anchor them, WTS’s writers flailed, seemingly unable to settle on a compelling storyline. Would Sanditon’s mayor succeed in turning the local ice cream shop into a juice bar? Could the town support two new businesses, both dedicated to the indoor-cycling craze? Would Gigi Darcy (Allison Paige) reluctantly obey her brother’s wishes and apply to graduate school? Who could care? Only a subplot involving the budding romance between perky ice cream shop owner Clara Breton (Lenne Klingaman) and goofy mayoral assistant Ed Denham (Kyle Walters) – both loosely based on characters in Austen’s fragment – had potential. The June 10 episode, “Glitch,” in which the two erstwhile antagonists spent hours on videophone bonding over the miniseries of Day of the Triffids -- a sly nod to a fandom whose fervor rivals that of the Janeites -- achieved some of the sweetness of the best LBD episodes. But the writers largely squandered that promising beginning, inexplicably giving the two would-be lovers almost no shared screen time thereafter. The rather pedestrian ups and downs of their relationship were largely relegated to Twitter exchanges until, finally, everything worked out and they shared an adorable kiss over a Nutella waffle sundae. Which brings me to Thursdays. If the Monday episodes of WTS were disappointing, the Thursdays were excruciating. Some weeks, Clara anchored wannabe Cooking Channel segments featuring ice cream concoctions so sickly-sweet you could get tooth decay just watching. (Those Nutella waffle sundaes weren’t the half of it.) And those were the good weeks. Other Thursdays featured compilations of fan-submitted videos, mostly blurry, poorly lit clips of teenage girls sitting on their beds riffing incoherently on the latest developments. The mom in me kept hoping none of these kids had told their school friends to watch. What did the failed Welcome to Sanditon experiment prove? Professionalism matters. However charming the impulse to participate, enthusiasm is no substitute for training and experience in the difficult crafts of writing, acting and cinematography. It's a lesson worth keeping in mind in a cyber-world that increasingly prefers to crowd-source everything and that privileges authenticity over polish. Sometimes the crowd doesn't know what it's doing. Sometimes authenticity sucks. Give me well-made artifice every time. Still, professionalism alone is no guarantee of success. LBD was lucky enough to build upon the rock-solid foundation of Jane Austen’s compelling story and characters. Lacking that foundation, WTS struggled to find its footing – and never did. Luckily, the team’s next project shouldn’t have that problem. It’s a web-based adaptation of Emma.