Bernie Su found success creating The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the wonderful Web series based on Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. In expertly transporting Austen’s Regency tale of love and marriage into the 21st Century, Su was able to bring out how timeless some of Austen’s themes and concerns are. In Emma Approved, Su once again finds Austen’s work easily adaptable to the digital age. Like Amy Herkerling’s Clueless (1995), Emma Approved is an adroit and canny update of Austen’s classic novel, and stands proudly alongside the more traditional adaptations of the BBC or PBS.
In a nutshell, Emma is about a headstrong, stubborn, and beautiful young woman who fancies herself a master matchmaker. Unfortunately, she blunders terribly when trying to play cupid, and eventually she learns her lesson. In Emma Approved, Su and company take Emma Wodehouse and make her an entrepreneur – a smart choice because it only makes sense that a 21st Century Emma Wodehouse would work for a living. She runs a lifestyle company – a sort of comprehensive service provider that fixes relationships and plans events (I’m thinking it was inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop). The books male lead, Mr. Knightly, is transformed from Emma Wodehouse’s kind, yet stern brother-in-law, to Emma’s kind, yet stern business partner. Harriet Smith, the young naive protegee Emma takes under her wing is changed from an illegitimate orphan into a hyper-competent, yet still naive executive assistant. For the most part, these changes are seamless, and work well within the narrative, which closely follows the original story.
Emma Approved tells the story of Emma (Joanna Sotomura, charming and lovely), bright and ambitious young woman who has a very high opinion of herself. Emma thinks she knows best when it comes to love and does not shy away from manipulating those around her to suit her needs and wants. Her business partner Alex (Brent Bailey), tries to keep a semblance of decorum and control over Emma’s machinations, but proves to be unequal to Emma’s ambition and ego. Like Emma, there’s no large overarching plot to Emma Approved (which is what many people complained about with Emma), but that’s okay, because in tiny, five-minute episodes, it’s okay that the story tends to feel chopped up and episodic. Emma Approved moves from one small story to another – all held together by the string of Emma’s meddling and how it affects the lives of those she loves best.
And while Emma Approved is successful as a whole, it does show some minor limits to its genre. As with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved is shown in tiny, bite-sized Web episodes. The conceit is that Emma is recording her business transactions and her successes in hopes of putting together a successful documentary. This format doesn’t always work, especially in the more dramatic moments when we’re supposed to believe that Emma is fighting with her friends on camera. It’s difficult to buy that the more personal and difficult arguments would be filmed, and that the characters would agree to have their wrenching moments recorded. Also, the actors are too careful to cheat to the camera, even when in conflict which intrudes a bit on the reality of the show.
And though the characters’ transitions from 1810’s England to 2010’s America is for the most part well done, a few of the choices seemed iffy. I’m thrilled that Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates were written as African-American. I’m not so thrilled that Miss Bates was transformed from a silly sad sack to a jovial collection of sassy black lady cliches. The other nods to multiculturalism in the program work – it’s unforced and reflect the diverse viewing audience that would watch Emma Approved.
But really, the show could’ve had the best ingredients and still failed if it didn’t have the right Emma. Luckily Sotomura is more than up to the challenge. Emma is one of Austen’s trickier characters because so much of her behavior is so wildly unlikable, that it’s difficult to create a story around such a potentially unsympathetic character. Emma is mule-headed, strong-willed, egotistical, and single-minded. She’s also kind, loving, and deeply compassionate. It’s difficult to meld such disparate characteristics into one cohesive character, and often adaptations of Emma reduce the character into an entitled spoiled brat. Thankfully, Su and Sotomura do so much more with her. We still get the reckless abandon and reaching ambition, but we also understand that Emma’s schemes had good intentions. She really wants her friends to be happy. In that respect, Sotomura’s interpretation of Emma reminded me a bit of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation. Like Leslie, Emma doesn’t shirk away from a challenge, no matter how daunting it may be; and like Leslie, Amy often will steamroll over anyone who stands in her way, including those she loves most. What makes Sotomura’s performance so right is that she deftly combines the steely pragmatist with the dewy romantic. She’s also a strong comedienne with great timing, and easily anchors the show with a winning performance. Casting directors take note: Joanna Sotomura is a major talent.
Hopefully, purists won’t turn their noses up at Emma Approved because of its unconventional approach to taking on such a canonized classic. What Bernie Su does is make the case that Austen is as relevant now as any other contemporary author. Her sharp satirical takes on society, class, and gender still apply today. And though, Austen’s point of view sometimes veers to close to conservatism (her heroines get married, and class differences matter), her pointed critiques on love, romance, and gender all work for contemporary audiences. Hopefully, after watching Emma Approved, some of the show’s younger audiences will be more compelled to go to the library and borrow a copy of the real thing.