In 1913, Sybil G. Brinton, the thirty-eight-year-old daughter of a wealthy carpet manufacturer from Worcestershire, England, published Old Friends and New Fancies, the first Jane Austen sequel. Brinton’s book blithely mingles characters from all six Austen novels, imagining romantic sparks flying between Mr. Darcy’s shy little sister, Georgiana, and Fanny Price’s dashing naval brother, William. Pemberley, Mansfield, Longbourn–hey, it’s all Jane Austen!
A similar spirit animates the Austen-inspired TV/web series Austentatious, a viewing of which was my first self-imposed assignment in the Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 plugging a few of the gaping holes in my Janeite education. Austentatious concerns the adventures of modern-day twenty-something Elinor Dashwood, her sister Marianne, and their friends Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet, along with assorted male colleagues, pals, and love interests.
For us edgier Janeites, Austentatious has an unpromising pedigree: it’s distributed by SunWorld Pictures, which calls itself “the studio for wholesome entertainment.” These are the folks who brought us the cringe-inducing, unintentionally hilarious Austen update Scents and Sensibility, whose credit list overlaps significantly with that of Austentatious.
Austentatious’ first season – ten episodes of twenty-two-minutes each–was released on DVD last year and remains available online through the Dove Channel, a streaming service dedicated to “family-approved” and “faith-friendly” video offerings. (A second season may appear, depending on the success of Season One.)
Degenerate though I am, I don’t insist on sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in my every diversion. Over the centuries, great artists have created wonderful family-friendly entertainment in many genres (anyone want to watch The Wizard of Oz with me? Reread Little Women? Listen to "Peter and the Wolf"?). Still, it must be said that artists who set out to make “wholesome” work too often end up with different flavors of bland.
And, indeed, you couldn’t call Austentatious edgy. It’s set in a lily-white, suburban world where no one seems to drink, swear, talk about sex, take the Lord’s name in vain, or even log onto Facebook. It’s no surprise to learn that filming took place in Utah: while I don’t know if the filmmakers are themselves Mormon, this is pretty clearly an evangelical-friendly production.
The results are . . . not great, but a little better than I’d expected. Season One begins in leisurely fashion, introducing our characters and sprinkling small (very small) nuggets of plot along the way. Sensible accountant Elinor falls for Edward Ferrars, a kind, sensitive–wait for it–IRS agent. Elinor’s geeky, annoying neighbor Colin pursues real estate agent Elizabeth, who is showing houses to lawyer William Darcy, a colleague of Emma’s. Emma, a divorce lawyer who likes to set her friends up on blind dates,* has an inexplicable British accent and spends a lot of time hanging around with a friend–possibly another lawyer-colleague; I missed that explainer–named Grant Knightley. Flighty Marianne works at the Friends-like neighborhood snack shop, where the gang convene frequently for cupcakes, smoothies, and even smoothies made from cupcakes. (Is that a thing? ‘Cause it sounds totally disgusting to me. Kids these days. . .)
Not until Episode 8 does much Austen plot begin to emerge, as Edward drops by the snack shop with Another Woman on his arm, a timid-but-sweet nurse named Brandon develops a crush on Marianne, Grant becomes curiously concerned about Emma’s date with a handsome CEO, and the previously overbearing Darcy shows signs of loosening up. And as the season concludes–cliffhanger alert!--Marianne is preparing to jet off to Paris for a modeling gig with a hot fashion photographer named John Willoughby. . .
I cannot deny that the visuals are drab, the writing lacks Austenian sparkle, and the acting is seldom more than serviceable. And yet, there’s something about binge-watching a series, even a not-very-good one: somehow, you find yourself getting sucked in against your better judgment, wondering how they’re going to handle Elinor’s heartbreak and when Wickham is going to make an appearance and how long it will take Grant and Emma to figure out that they’re in love with each other. I can’t recommend this show, and yet if they produce Season Two, I suspect I’m going to watch it. My name is Deborah, and I’m a Jane-a-holic.
Back in 1913, Virginia Woolf reviewed Brinton’s book. Woolf clearly didn’t think much of it as a novel, yet she wrote generously, calling Old Friends and New Fancies “a work of great love and great ingenuity which, if taken not as fiction but as talk about Jane Austen’s characters, will please that select public which is never tired of discussing them.” The more things change. . .
* Alicia “Clueless” Silverstone, every Janeite’s favorite modern-day Emma, played a matchmaking divorce lawyer in the short-lived 2003 NBC TV series Miss Match. I was apparently the only person who watched it, which accounts for its early demise.
Oct 11 2016 02:00AM by Jan Willener , austenophile
Thank you for this review of Austen spinoffs. Have you seen/read Lost in Austen, Becoming Jane, or Jane Austen Book Club? Pretty good, I think.
Oct 11 2016 02:40AM by Deborah Yaffe
Thanks for reading, Jan! I'm familiar with all the spinoffs you mention. I'm not a fan of Becoming Jane (though I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours), but I enjoyed the other two.
Mar 7 2017 07:22PM by Dani
I am not a Jane-ite, having never read a single Austen novel. However, I am inexplicably drawn to anything Austen-adjacent, even something as bland as Austentatious. I just watched this recently and I totally agree with your assessment. The ability to binge-watch shows has given new life to mediocre work because I can use it as background noise while I fold laundry and do other chores. The actress who plays Elizabeth is the most appealing member of the cast for me and I hope she gets work in something with better writing.
Apr 8 2017 08:49PM by Deborah Yaffe
Oh, Dani--please go read some Jane Austen! She is anything but bland, and if you get a good Books-on-Tape version, you can even continue with the laundry-folding. . . Thanks for reading!
Apr 5 2017 04:15PM by Jennifer
"I can’t recommend this show, and yet if they produce Season Two, I suspect I’m going to watch it." Ha ha. My exact sentiments. It's super hokey, yet I find myself wondering what might happen next. The best part is that it's rather mindless so I can have it as background noise and sort of pay attention while I work.
Apr 8 2017 08:49PM by Deborah Yaffe
Yes, even the least good shows have their uses! Thanks for reading. . .