Lately, I’ve been watching the popular YouTube web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.” The show, which offers a tart spin on the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice, reincarnates the heroine, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet, as a modern-day 24-year-old graduate student who starts a video blog for a school project.
I want to put it out there that this show is brilliant. Each of the 100 episodes is six minutes long at most, running every Monday and Thursday as a continuous vlog series. And though the program was designed to be consumed in short, digestible diary segments, I’ve ingested 30 or 40 of them in a few breathless gulps.
There’s something to be said about the staying power of the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, which has endured so many reformulations over the years yet isn’t stale. One might presume that “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” would get old after its umpteenth utterance by Darcy doppelgangers in an assortment of coiffures and colloquialisms. But if you are of this camp, prepare to be surprised, because “LBD” bursts with freshness and ingenuity.
Take Mr. Bingley, the adorably clueless object of Jane Bennet’s affections, who’s reinvented as a rich Chinese medical student from Los Angeles called “Bing Lee,” or Mr. Darcy, re-imagined in the 21st century as a taciturn hipster. What’s more, the five Bennet sisters have become three, with angsty Mary Bennet relegated to the role of the forgotten emo cousin and Kitty Bennet reincarnated as, quite literally, a kitty cat.
But I think the show’s greatest appeal is the expansiveness of its fictional cosmos. By that I mean the characters are dealt with as if they were real people operating in real time. Most of the characters have their own Twitter accounts, where they flirt, scheme and occasionally reply to real-world followers. They reblog fan Gifs on their tumblrs. Jane Bennet even has a Lookbook, on which she posts links to the painfully adorable outfits she is spotted donning in her sister’s videos. For all intents and purposes, this show is an exercise in voyeurism, perfect for a generation raised on a healthy diet of Google-searching and Facebook-stalking.
It struck me one day how potently the show might act as a commentary on the fictionality of real-life YouTube video bloggers, a large number of whom have become brands and characters of their own. It’s not insignificant to mention that “LBD” was co-created by Hank Green, who together with his brother John has revolutionized the YouTube community with his own special brand of vlog style. Part storytelling, part chatty confessional — this style straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, private and public.
Take this guy, who made a name for himself after reading the entire “Twilight” series on camera and endured a very messy (and very public) break-up with his girlfriend, who just so happens to also be a YouTube star. Or this guy, who embarked on a yearlong project that ordained his viewers to decide what he ate, when he shaved and where he moved. Outside of the conceit that they’ve made the decision to throw their lives onto the screen for the world to see, these YouTube “celebrities” aren’t distinguishable from anybody else you’d encounter walking down the street. They’re college students with average faces and average body weights — they’re people who would otherwise meld in with a crowd full of strangers. Real people.
Yet, in many ways, they’re not. Because there’s an invisible component at play here: money. The YouTube Partner Program, a business venture which awards dollars for view counts, has imposed a tightly regulated economic system on what is and isn’t broadcasted online. Everyone you see onscreen, ostensibly engaged in his or her everyday lives, is working. They compete for Twitter followers; they return real-life events into fodder for video narratives. They have fans, but fans of what? Of their characters, their acting? No, of their lives.
Reality television has long occupied a curious space in popular culture, with scholars and viewers alike contending on it’s grouping as art or anthropology. A more accurate genre categorization might be something like anthropology as art. When people simultaneously juggle their lives with their livelihoods, what makes a pedestrian vlog about the deliciousness of a Chipotle burrito any different from a television episode from “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?” When does a life cross the line from fact into fiction? Is there a difference anymore?
Jennifer Xu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.