Twelfth Grade (or whatever)

Date: 2016
Posted by: Liv Belcik, S Messing and S-messing Around!
Cast: Sarah Taylor (Viola/Sam Messing), Kristen Vaganos (Liv Belcik), Julian Hermano (Oren Douglas), Derya Celikkol (Tammi Belcik), Jon Steiger (Drew Aguecheek), Adriana Figeuroa (Maria Waites), Evan Neiden (Malcolm Volinsky), Andres Cordoba (Vic Caius), Justin Linville (Curt Slender), Eliot Barnhart (Sebastian Messing)
Credits: Quip Modest Productions. Jules Pigott (head writer/director/editor), Uma Dwivedi, Angela Farooq, Sarah Goodwin, Lee Hittner-Cunningham, Daisy Murphy and Julia Reinstein (developers), Simona Riccardi and Shannen Michaelson (assistant directors)
Duration: Ongoing

This is excellent. Right from the start of the opening episode, in which a kazoo-playing Oren tells us of his favourite bands, then confesses to his room mates that he is utterly in love, one senses a confident directorial hand and a witty retelling of Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s own opening has been simulataneously acknowledged, parodied and used as the steeping stone to an original conception.

So, yes, it’s another another web series designed for those who “like Shakespeare and awkward teenagers” (as writer-director Jules Pigott pithily puts it). The set-up is familiar: students using vlogs to share their thoughts with the online audience, with multiple viewpoints achieved through different YouTube accounts in the names of the characters, social media spin-offs and so on. There’s a plot-line that riffs on Shakespeare, so that Oren = Orlando, Sam/Viola = Viola, Liv = Olivia, Malcolm = Malvolio, Drew = Andrew Aguecheek, and so on. The main business involves Viola disguising herself in an all-boys’ school and falling with love with jock Oren, with a range of secondary characters, some with Shakespearean roots, some invented, who flesh out and enrich the narrative. The twists and turns of young love are credible enough, the contrivances (such as characters using other people’s cameras to post vlogs) no worse than Shakespeare was guilty of, and the characters’ frankness combined with naivety is of our age.

What makes this series stand out is the style. The need for the characters to confess to cameras (usually, though not always, in their bedrooms) both constrains and defines such productions, but the production takes every opportunity to play imaginative variations on the theme. So we get musical interludes, conversations held while all we see is a video game being played by the speakers, intercutting between different people’s vlogs, characters answering viewers’ questions, even one episode that takes place completely in the dark. Even the eye-catching variety of their titles pleases (Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Representation of the Ego in Media, Unreliable Narrator, Oren Plays Kazoo for Five Minutes). There is also a satisfying narrative arc, showing as much control over the series as a whole as its individual elements. The performances from the young cast are uniformly good, with lightness and darkness of tone equally well handled.

Twelfth Grade (or whatever) is written, edited and directed by New Yorker Jules Pigott, who engagingly and illuminatingly and rapidly explains how the series is made in the above video. One sees the huge dedication involved, from preparing the scripts, to co-ordinating the performers, to editing and uploading the videos, to keep the social media streams going. And all this for around 1,000 views per episode. That suggests that this is not being done simply for the likes, tweets or followed, but because those involved believe in what they are doing. It’s what separates art from mere opportunity.

This is the second Shakespeare series from Quip Modest productions – the first, Like, As It Is (based on As You Like It), I have yet to see, though apparently it is an apprentice work. Twelfth Grade (or whatever) shows how Shakespeare functions as a stimulus to the imagination, letting ideas fly. It has enough of a debt to Shakespeare’s play to cause smiles of recognition, but it is never weighed down by the association. It has its own special story to tell.

Links:
Complete episode list
Quip Modest Productions tumblr site
Twelfth Grade (or whatever) on Twitter
Jules Pigott’s personal site

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