Five years ago, Pemberley Digital released their first episode of Emma Approved, the Emmy-Award winning transmedia series that reimagined the character Jane Austen described as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” as a modern-day advice coach turned vlogger. Over the course of the show’s initial 72-episode run, Pemberley Digital painted a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of Emma Woodhouse that allows the viewers’ appreciation of Emma’s strength to grow in parallel with Emma’s own personal growth as the series progresses. And to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the show, Emma Approved is returning for a sequel, starting in October.
A Quick History Lesson: Pemberley Digital and the Birth of a Genre
When Hank Green and Bernie Su created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 2012, it was far from the first modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s works, nor was it even the first attempt at telling those stories on YouTube as a web series. What set The Lizzie Bennet Diaries apart was its expert use of the vlogging format to make Austen’s characters come alive, reinforced by the social platforms they inhabited as part of the show’s transmedia strategy. This format inspired the birth of a genre, leading to the creation of over a hundred literary web series and the formation of Pemberley Digital that fittingly existed simultaneously as a fictional company within the world of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and as a company focused on producing new literary web series.
When Pemberley Digital released a DVD box set of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, they reinvested a portion of those funds into the creation of Welcome to Sanditon, their second foray into Jane Austen adaptations. In order to flesh out a narrative around Austen’s unfinished novel, the production team turned to the audience to create the town of Sanditon together, with viewers virtually settling to live in the town as an exercise in co-creation, powered by social media and the video platform Theatrics. Welcome to Sanditon was still focused on character-driven storytelling – it just expanded to draw some of its B-plots from the characters its viewers were role-playing. Sanditon veteran Kyle Walters borrowed much of that co-creation framework for The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, while Pemberley Digital opted for a more passive experience with their next project, Emma Approved.
Crafting a More Sympathetic Emma: This Review is Emma Approved
Like its predecessors, Emma Approved was set up as a character-driven show, allowing audiences to gradually come to know the show’s characters both through the video uploads and their online presences. But unlike Lizzie Bennet and fan-favorite Gigi Darcy, Emma Woodhouse doesn’t start off as endearing. “Emma Woodhouse…beautiful, clever, and brilliant. There are many intriguing female entrepreneurs in the love and lifestyle industry, but no one is more dynamic or has more potential than young Ms. Woodhouse.” Hearing Emma introduce herself by reciting that dose of hyperbolic prose to the camera doesn’t leave the best first impression. After seeing her systematically bully and lie to friends and coworkers to get her way in the next few videos, her second and third impressions could use some work as well.
And yet, in a series based in large part around Emma’s personal growth, Emma Approved is just as careful in highlighting how Emma’s greatest strengths are present throughout the series. When Annie Taylor is having doubts about her marriage to Ryan Weston, Emma is empathetic enough to identify what the underlying problem is, without being explicitly told. She just crosses the line by trying to fix everything behind everyone’s back, through subterfuge and deceit. After being confronted with her behavior, Emma internalizes the lesson so that when confronted by a similar situation with her sister, she takes a more reasoned tact. The lesson isn’t “don’t meddle in other peoples’ affairs” – that’s a core component of Emma’s personality and her business model. Instead, the lesson is to do so more directly.
Throughout the series, Emma learns a series of painful lessons after letting down most of the people in her life. And while she learns and adapts, she does not do so at the expense of who she is – the Emma Woodhouse who closes out the series is just as assertive, empathetic, and confident as the Emma who started it. She just finds better mechanisms for channeling that passion. And speaking of passion, it’s almost impossible not to ship the budding romances that form during the show. Bobby Martin and Harriet Smith’s awkwardly adorable overt flirting serves as the perfect foil for Emma Woodhouse and Alex Knightley’s more tentative banter, and the characters’ romantic arcs are equal parts fulfilling and nail-biting every step of the way.
A Whole New Diegetic World with Emma Approved
A hallmark of Pemberley Digital’s literary web series are the shows’ diegetic justifications for why the videos exist. With The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lizzie explains that she’s sharing the videos as part of her graduate studies, and other characters discovering those videos was used as a plot point. With Welcome to Sanditon, the justification for the show’s existence was that Pemberley Digital was rolling out an experimental video recording platform called Domino across the town. Glitches with that system were also used as a plot point. For both of these shows, the understanding was that the videos were rolling out in close to real time, so viewers could react to what they were seeing in real time, at least for characters who were currently “in the know”.
That model changed slightly with Emma Approved. While all video recordings are still justified in-world as part of Emma Woodhouse’s efforts to document her greatness in anticipation for her inevitable lifetime achievement award, the video uploads themselves existed out of world. This led to a shifting dynamic where fan involvement became much more centered around the social footprints left by characters. As a result, the nature of fan interactions evolved, with major events in the series carving out more directed forms of interaction, like a charity benefit that raised over $4,500 for the human rights advocacy group 27 Million to combat human trafficking in the real world while at the same time enshrining Alex Knightley as Emma Approved’s most eligible bachelor within the narrative universe.
Emma’s assistant Harriet Smith was another center for the show’s interactive elements. One of the most dramatic moments involved Bobby “B-Mart” Martin’s proposal to Harriet Smith. When B-Mart initially records a video to ask Harriet out, he tells the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes, and starts making paper cranes as a testament to his love for her. While Harriet initially rejects his advances based on Emma’s advice, Harriet finishes off the series with a grand gesture involving 1,000 paper cranes. While these cranes were folded by Harriet in-universe, they were actually assembled by fans of the show at VidCon, allowing the audience to have a role in bringing one of the show’s most popular pairings together. Harriet was also at the center of an online music club. After getting rejected, Harriet starts writing and performing music on the ukulele on the channel, releasing the sheet music for three original songs and inspiring a number of fan covers.
Curiously, Pemberley Digital has also opted to connect its Jane Austen-based narratives into a single shared world, with characters serving as bridges between shows. As The Lizzie Bennet Diaries gave way to Welcome to Sanditon, Gigi Darcy moved with the show to provide a narrative hook that allowed for cameo appearances. Caroline Lee became the bridge between The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, creating Pemberley’s Regency-era counterpart to the Marvel cinematic universe.
The Return of Emma Approved
Last week, Pemberley Digital released a video announcing the return of Emma Approved. But unlike the Emma of five years ago, this Emma Woodhouse has grown from her experiences, and learned to find love with her beau Alex Knightley. The video also implies there might be a diegetic shift with the show, as Emma Approved goes public through the launch of its Patreon account, allowing fans to become “shareholders” in the company. Shareholder privileges allow “investors” to sit in on company board meetings and even play a role in choosing new clients for the company. The team at Emma Approved have also experimented with leveraging the Moment Stories app, allowing players to experience part of the narrative as digital interns at Emma Approved, interacting with characters through a text chat facsimile. While it’s too soon to tell for sure, signs are pointing towards players having a more direct role in the story with its return.
While Emma Approved is only scheduled to return for a two month run, the show’s Patreon account plans on extending the show if it reaches 1,000 “shareholders”. So start marathoning the series for a quick refresher on everything Emma, and mark your calendars for a return to the connected worlds of Pemberley Digital, online next month. And with you on the Board, who knows what clients may pop up for the company’s triumphant return.