Friday, June 20, 2014

Jules and Monty brilliantly translates Shakespeare to a modern context

In the summer before I went to college, I became obsessed with this web series called Dorm Life.  It was sort of like The Office, except it took place on the floor of a freshman dorm instead of a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  I loved its homespun quality -- it was just a group of friends at UCLA coming together to make a little show.  It didn't have the budget of a TV show, so it took the fly-on-the-wall feeling and strong character development of mockumentary TV and condensed it into small bites of comedy.  Though it's been gone for a long time, I somehow still find myself thinking about it, and when I look back on my recently finished college experience, I become disappointed that I didn't build the kind of relationships that I loved in Dorm Life.

That series was an example of adapting a TV format to a strictly internet-based medium, but in recent years, web series have evolved enough to create shows that take on a format wholly unique to the internet: vlogs.  It has seen a recent explosion thanks in part to the Hank Green produced smash hit, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and its spiritual successor, Emma Approved.  Those two series were notable because they were able to adapt classic works of literature -- Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively -- and transform them into a YouTube-friendly vlogging style.  Now there are tons of these kind of stories out there, and you can't go too far on YouTube without finding a modern version of War and Peace or something.

But the format has reached its peak with Jules and Monty, which recently ended its 18-episode narrative about a month ago.  Jules and Monty feels like a mixture of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Dorm Life.  It takes from the former in that it adapts a famous piece of literature -- Romeo and Juliet -- and from the latter by making its modern setting college.  The Italian city of Verona has become the University of Verona, a northeastern college with a toxic frat culture. Consequently, the warring families of Capulet and Montague are now rival fraternities, KAP and MTG.  The series tells the tale of Jules Caine, the younger sister of Cliff (their version of Lord Capulet), the leader of the KAP fraternity; and Romeo Montgomery (but everyone calls him Monty), a lower-level member of MTG.  Through a sequence of alternating vlogs for their Communications class, we see the process of them meeting and getting together, and the tragedy that ultimately ensues when their respective alliances are tested.

Jules and Monty was written and created by Imogen Browder and Edward Rosini, two theater students at Tufts University, during their sophomore year.  The idea came about as sort of a surprise, as Imogen messaged Ed in the previous year and said that she wanted to do a web series, and the two of them proceeded to script out an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet over the course of a summer via Facebook messages and Google Docs.  It was then filmed with the help of their friends in the theater program and the university production department during the fall semester of 2013.  But despite the shoestring budget and tiny crew, it doesn't look like a web series made by a group of college students.  The amount of passion put into the project shines through, because the whole thing feels incredibly polished and professional.

Imogen Browder and Edward Rosini also take on the lead roles of Jules and Monty, and reveal themselves to be capable actors in the process.  Browder is especially talented, possessing a screen presence and vulnerability that's as engaging as any actress playing Juliet that I've ever seen.  Whenever she's in a scene, it's hard not to be absolutely hypnotized by her incredible performance.  She takes Juliet, a character who could be seen as weak and lacking in agency in the source material, and turns her into the heart and soul of the entire story.  Just look at the way she nails one of the play's iconic passages.

Though its one of the most widely taught of Shakespeare's plays in middle and high school, Romeo and Juliet has its fair share of detractors.  There are some who find its story of two teenagers who fall in love over the course of a few days to be juvenile and shallow.  On the other side of the spectrum, there are others who consider Shakespeare's satirical look at young love kind of mean-spirited and cynical.  Jules and Monty being created by and focused on college students allows it to fall into an interesting middle ground.  They're old enough to recognize that the feelings these characters have aren't the end-all-be-all in the grand scheme of things, but young enough to still make the romance full of weight and sincerity.  This series strips away the original play's melodrama and grounds it in a sense of reality that seems to ask, "What would it be like if this happened to real people"?

The college setting helps sell the idea of these characters clashing with each other because of their constant proximity, and how drunkenness fuels many of their decisions.  But it also really understands the dynamics of the tight-knit friendships that develop at this age, especially through Jules and her best friend/roommate, Nancy.  The latter might be one of the greatest creations of the series, and is certainly the most original.  She's a riff on The Nurse, but gets transformed from the insubstantial character she is in Shakespeare's original play into what is essentially the story's third lead.  From the very first episode that we see her in, you get a good sense of her friendship with Jules, and how her more outgoing boldness compliments Juliet's sweet reservation.  All she wants is what she thinks is the best for Jules, and her arc, which results from that single motivation, is fascinating.  That the writers (and Evey Reidy, who plays her) are willing to make a character who could've merely been a minor player into a fully-formed human being just makes the series even more impressive.

One of the other things that makes it so accessible is its use of language.  Unlike many present day adaptations of classic literature, Jules and Monty actually incorporates bits and pieces of Shakespeare's dialogue within the modern speech.  The switch is very deliberate too -- characters usually lapse into heightened language during moments of passion or inebriation.  It emphasizes the emotions of each scene, but it also helps to make The Bard's oft-daunting writing more accessible, providing context by slotting it between chunks of regular college vernacular.

*Plot details for the end of Jules and Monty follow.  Skip the next two paragraphs to remain unspoiled*

The most notable and intelligent thing about the series is how it adapts the ending.  Monty gets expelled and has to move back home after an altercation with Tye (Tybalt) puts the latter in the hospital.  Then Nancy -- out of a desire to end the violence between MTG and KAP, and help Jules move on -- forges a letter from Monty that makes Jules believe he's broken up with her, then convinces Jules to block him on her phone and every form of social media.  With Monty out of her life, Jules falls into a deep depression, which causes her grades to drop.  Eventually Professor Lawrence (The Friar) advises her to transfer to another school in order to escape the bad memories and her abusive brother.  Monty makes a last ditch effort to try to win Jules back, but he sees her empty room when he returns to Verona, and assumes that she's already left.

So Jules and Monty doesn't end with a double suicide, just a missed connection.  By removing death from their misfortune of communication, it lowers the scale of the play's conclusion, but somehow makes its tragedy more crushing and real.  In the play, Romeo and Juliet die, convinced of each other's love at the very least.  In the web series, the pain and uncertainty lives on.  Jules moves away, never knowing that Monty still wants to be with her; and Monty never knows that if he would've just arrived a few seconds earlier or stayed a few seconds longer, then he would've seen Jules again.  Their lives will continue.  They will likely fall in love with other people.  But there will always be the ache of that "What if?" factor.  In retooling the ending, the series managed to perfectly capture the process of growing up and growing apart that many college students go through.  It's a devastating way to go out.

*End of spoilers*

A show like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries took full advantage of YouTube as a medium by having multiple side channels where you could see what characters like Lydia, Gigi, and Darcy were up to when they left Lizzie's orbit.  Those videos almost feel essential to getting the entire experience.  Jules and Monty plays out all in one main story, but the experience becomes so much richer if you watch the behind-the-scenes videos in between each episode, called "Vlog Vlog"s.  Just as you'll become endeared to the characters in the actual story, you'll also start to fall in love with the funny, affable people making the show.  Through these crew interviews and production vlogs, you get to see the process of a group of people coming together contrasted with the series they're making: a story about a group of people falling apart.  It makes for an interesting, engrossing binge-watching process.  

Most of all, I'm just in awe of the fact that a web series so smart and thoughtful could be made by people my age.  It seems like the crew wants the experience to last as much as the fans do, because even though the main story has concluded, the channel has been releasing weekly director's commentaries and extra behind-the-scenes videos.  Eventually it'll come to an end, which makes me sad, but Imogen and Ed have alluded to having another project in the works, and I anxiously await whatever it is.  Jules and Monty fills me with the same mouth-frothing, I-want-to-tell-everybody-I-know-about-this enthusiasm that I felt when I started watching Vlogbrothers videos, or discovered Five Awesome Girls, or binged on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time.  I wish I was important enough for this blog post to give it the kind of audience it deserves, but for now I'll settle for tossing this praise out into the void and hoping it reaches whomever it can.  Start with episode one, I promise you'll be hooked.

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