Recurring Cast: Deborah Couch, Edward Gist, Anna Lloyd, Megan Purvis, Ben Gilbert, Louis John Brzozka, Daniel Chambers
Away From It All is an independent web series and is available to watch from free right here.
Away From It All is a very good idea, albeit one that is difficult to execute. Therefore, despite its flaws, you still leave the project impressed at the achievement that has been reached with this small web series, created in Devon.
The concept is a retelling of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, but set in modern day, in a quiet Devon village, called Weatherbury, through the use of vlogs and found footage. The characters are made up of several aspiring Youtubers, whose short five minute videos make up the story of Far From The Madding Crowd. The lead heroes are the out-of-town, kind-hearted Gabriel Oak, who documents his thoughts and feelings on his smartphone, the charismatic Youtuber wannabe, Liddy Smallbury and businesswoman in the making, Bathsheba Everdene, who upon being the centre of attention of the town, uses the internet as a tool to get her side of the story out to the public. With the exception of the modern alterations (Bathsheba owns a bar, not a farm), and some more supporting characters to round up Bathsheba’s friendship group, this is a fairly faithful adaptation with Bathsheba trying to set up a life for herself as an independent woman, despite advances from Gabriel, the romantic but socially awkward older man, Thomas Boldwood, and cocky, charismatic Frank Troy, a handsome man who might not be the ideal lover that he is made out to be. The vlogs make for a really great interactive way to involve the audience. Watching it in real-time is like following a genuine vlog, albeit one where dramatic stuff actually happens. The web series drip-feeds you information over the course of 50 episodes, give or take a few bonus videos, so the story happens gradually over the course of six months. As well as the actual story, fans of the series can follow the characters on Instagram and Twitter to see what the characters get up to on a daily basis. Even outside of the episodes, you can log in to see Thomas Boldwood complaining about the council’s policies on removing over-growing nettles or the characters’ photos about an upcoming wedding party. It creates a mini universe, where even when you are not thinking about the series, a stray tweet can throw you right back into that world again. It builds this sense that the series could be playing out somewhere right now. Seeing as the series ends up using the source novel to tackle some current social issues about abusive relationships, this is a very strong way of helping the audience realise there are couples out there struggling right now with domineering partners. The only downside to the real-time social media angle is that for those learning about the series after the fact, as in from this review for example, will have missed out on this unique extension of the web series. It means that Away From It All, from here on out, will be missing a large part of its unique selling point and charm.
There are other problems with the format, which are admittedly quite difficult to avoid. The storytelling style means that, for a long while, Away From It All starts very slow. While newcomers to the show will miss out on the adjacent Twitter feeds, they will be able to binge the first quarter of the series to get the ball rolling. With small snippets of episodes, the opening to this series is a slow-burning one, as the show works on introducing us to the characters and making us care for them before the good stuff kicks in. Cue several episodes of Gabriel Oak filming the sunset, while telling us about why he has moved to Weatherbury. The vlogging side of stuff needs a few episodes of chit chat to set the tone as well, so Liddy Smallbury has to kill time with random Youtube challenges. In trying to create a sense of realism, Away From It All accidentally does exactly what it sets out to do: give us a show which is essentially about a vlogger talking to a camera for quite a few episodes. Thankfully, when the story peaks, Away From It All moves away from the slower pace of storytelling and gets rather good, but it takes a slightly overlong time to hit that momentum. There are also issues with the acting. That is not to say that any of the actors are bad at what they do. However, the style of this web series doesn’t really lend itself to good performances. It is tricky to figure out how good Anna Lloyd is for example, because, again, in going for a sense of realism, we only ever get a charismatic girl talking to a camera. It could be argued that this, in itself, makes for a truly good performance, but it remains to be said that the subtlety of the characters might go over some of the audience’s heads. The series also asks the characters to spend a lot of the time talking to no one but a webcam. It is an awkward thing for any actor to do, unable to muster up the chemistry with another person that truly helps things like exposition and dialogue flow as freely as they should. The web series is at its best, when the characters are working together as an ensemble, a group of five joking at a bar, or allowed to embrace raw emotion rather than casual banter. Finally, as with anything found footage, including major Hollywood movies, occasionally the writers struggle to show the bigger events in the format they are given. The climax of Away From It All’s principal love triangle is very good on paper and had the potential to be a satisfying resolution, but with the vlogging format the majority of the events are recapped rather than shown. Again, Away From It All’s flaws are understandable, forgivable even, but quite frustrating.
Where Away From It All does find praise, however, is in the script. While there are issues with the series in parts, it does work very well holistically. The realism might make the acting and pacing suffer, but as a whole, it creates this thought-provoking story and immersive environment that an audience can truly throw themselves into. For a large part of the time, Away From It All works well as an entertaining excuse to hang out with some fun people. The two biggest laughs are early on with Liddy secretly filming Thomas Boldwood mourning a failed courting, edited to a sad Police track, and later an entertaining open mic night which brings little more to the story than making us love each and every character that little bit more. And just when, again, the pacing is beginning to drag, the story takes a turn for the dramatic, almost abandoning the whimsy completely and telling an emotional story about how relationships can slowly become a source of mental abuse. Ben Gilbert is consistently strong as the sleazy Frank Troy, who starts off causing the female audience members to salivate at the mouth, but descends into a manipulative, self-serving monster. The show then hits us with a video post from a brand new character who only shows up once, but actress Anna Vince nearly outshines the entire cast with a single, heart-breaking monologue that truly marks the point where Away From It All becomes essential viewing. The team behind Away From It All, especially when it comes to the writers, have created this wonderful mini-universe that both adapts a classic piece of literature with decent results, while updating it, so it matters to both the social media age and the age where young people need to be aware of bad relationships. #Sheepgate.
Final Verdict: Away From It All works as a whole, rather than as individual episodes, but earns its stripes in the closing stretch.