The Better Strangers (The Borrowers That Lend, 2016)
Last year, I reviewed A Document of Madness, a web series adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. During the release of A Document of Madness, The Borrowers That Lend were also filming a sequel: The Better Strangers, adapted from As You Like It, which was released over the course of the past several months. Having enjoyed A Document of Madness, and As You Like It being a new addition to my favourite Shakespeare plays, I was naturally very excited to step back into the world of Wittenberg College and see how The Borrowers That Lend were able to grow from their first project. This proved to be a fun series that provided a little bright spot in my day whenever a new episode was released.
The Better Strangers follows the story of three characters from A Document of Madness (Rose, Jill, and Paulie) as they enter their second year of college. As they cope with being evicted from their flat early on in the year, a new addition to Wittenberg, Orlando, starts a vlog and an intense search for Rosalind, a girl he met at a party. With a broad cast of characters, the series spans 100 episodes, an entire college year, and the ups and downs of multiple friendships and romantic relationships. Whilst familiar faces from A Document of Madness appear every now and then, The Better Strangers is a rare sequel that holds its own as a separate entity from the original; sequels always have the potential to disappoint so it was a breath of fresh air to see how well this series navigated the space between events from the previous series and its own narrative. It isn’t necessary to have watched A Document of Madness before watching The Better Strangers, but if you enjoyed the former you will most likely enjoy the latter.
Given the difference in source material, The Better Strangers is far more light-hearted than A Document of Madness, focusing on the everyday lives of college students rather than uncovering a crime. Being the person that I am, I particularly enjoyed seeing Rose, Jill, and Paulie navigate the strain that their changing circumstances was putting on their friendship; the revelation that Paulie is still dealing with the emotional fallout of what had happened to Ophelia the previous year; and the emotional tension between Orlando and Oliver after the death of their father. Whilst there are difficulties in all the romantic relationships throughout the narrative, some of the most emotional moments come from conflict within friendship and sibling relationships. Rose and Jill’s friendship continued to be one of my on-screen friendships and I was so pleased that The Better Strangers explored this relationship in a realistic and engaging way.
This is a web series that definitely uses the vlog format to its advantage: it feels less structured and more natural than any other that I have seen. The Borrowers That Lend have mentioned that they didn’t feel the need to keep to the structure of As You Like It too rigidly, which is a decision that could easily have backfired; yet they were able to use the low-key nature of the narrative in proving that keeping too strictly to the source material’s structure would have had a detrimental effect on the overall tone of the project. Whilst there are elements of tension and conflict that remain unresolved for several episodes, lighter episodes from other characters in the interim mean that this never feels dominating or unbearable. As someone who is particularly sensitive to prolonged tension on screen, this was a narrative choice I greatly appreciated as it meant that I could continue to watch because I was enjoying the series rather than just to reassure myself that it would all work itself out.
There is so much more that I could say in praise of this series: as with A Document of Madness the acting, writing, and adaptation choices were all fantastic, and the characters were unendingly engaging. Despite its light-hearted nature, it still explored serious and important topics ranging from guilt after a loved one’s suicide attempt to emotionally abusive relationships to the tension that comes when different ways of processing grief clash; this was all explored faithfully in a way that enhanced the overall narrative of the series. Ultimately, this was a lovely and enjoyable series that I would definitely recommend (although I would still recommend you watch A Document of Madness first, because that is also a great series).