It’s no secret that the gap between premium television (paid for by and broadcast on traditional networks) and/or the big online players like Netflix and Amazon is getting smaller. Not in terms of budgets, but in terms of creativity, talent and opportunity. Increasingly the next big thing might come from the online world, and that wouldn’t be such a strange thing. Broad City and Insecure, two celebrated US comedy series, both had their origins online — via sketches by Abbi and Ilana, and Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. The celebrated Fleabag was a BBC Three digital show.See related Designated Survivor: a show well worth checking out
But the fact remains that without the traditional gatekeepers it can incredibly hard to wade through the sea of programming out there online and discover the gems. So let me help you. Below are 10 series that are either the best in class at what they do, deserving of far more recognition, or the first steps in what will sure to be a bigger career for their creators. So come back to this list in a few years and tell everyone you knew about them way before they were big. I’ve linked to all below, but for those that seem only available in the US, I may or may not recommend a technical get-around…
I Ship It (CW Seed)
Yule Kuang is an American filmmaker who got her start on YouTube. Her big break though was when New Form (the Ron Howard backed digital incubator) funded her to make a pilot of her musical romantic comedy I Ship It. Quirky, fun and whip smart, it was picked up by CW Seed, the online arm of The CW Network, which recently saw its animated Vixen series cross over to the main network and its title character appear in the flesh on Arrow. With Season 2 of I Ship It now wrapped, expect this young show runner to make the leap herself onto The CW.
Magic Funhouse (FullScreen)
In my opinion, this was the most exciting new comedy of 2016. From YouTube comedian Brandon Rogers (not to to be confused with either ex-Liverpool manager Brandon Rodgers or the baseball player of the same name), this dark, dark comedy about the making of a local TV kids show is relentless in its pacing, jokes, and daring. It rains dildos down in the first episode, and doesn’t pause for breath. While the smaller budget of this FullScreen show starts to tell by the final episode (which coincides with the breathless narrative finally running out of steam), the fact that something this bold exists is a testament to the opportunities afforded by online media. Watch and enjoy.
HarmonQuest (Formerly SeeSo, now VRV)
Ok, ok, so Dan Harmon isn’t exactly an unknown quantity at this point. But somehow this series, which I rank the equal of Community and Rick & Morty, slipped past a lot of people. Based on a popular segment of his HarmonTown live show, the premise is simple. Each week Harmon and friends play a fantasy role playing game (Pathfinder, based on Dungeons And Dragons 3rd Edition). This sets the stage for some of the funniest improvisational comedy in years. But then the icing on the cake is the fact that half the show is animated, lending a truly epic air to the whole thing. Dungeon Master Spencer Crittenden is the break-out star of the series, which features Aubrey Plaza, Thomas Middleditch and Paul F. Tomkins amongst others, with his quest adding a genuinely involving story to all the jokes. With SeeSo now gone, season 2 of this series has been picked up by VRV.
Rhett & Link’s Buddy System (YouTube Red)
YouTube Red, the subscription based “premium” side of YouTube, has been a mixed bag. A policy of commissioning shows from creators with big subscriber counts, and then putting those shows on the same creators’ channels, makes business sense but ultimately has left the service without an identity of its own, and led to questions of “why should I be paying for this content on a channel I already use for free?” Added to that is a lack of truly original and high quality programming, and it’s easy to see why YouTube is now rushing to do deals with established names from the more traditional side of entertainment, including The Rock and Doug Liman. However, there have been some truly outstanding shows created thanks to the bigger budgets afforded by YouTube Red, and Rhett And Link’s Buddy System is one of these. A musical comedy loosely based on the real them, think of this as a Flight Of The Conchords for the social media age.
Another New Form backed venture, Cold is a chilling mystery thriller set in Ontario, Canada. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but young writer/director Emily Diana Ruth has created something exceptional here, a slow burn thriller which bucks all conventional wisdom of what a short form series should be. It features some truly top tier talent, including Captain Fantastic’s Annalise Basso, True Blood’s Todd Lowe, and The Wire’s Jim True-Frost. Delving into secrets of the past, both personal and national (the shameful Canadian police tactic of “Starlight Tours” is examined here), Cold is a truly astounding achievement.
Jack & Dean of All Trades (FullScreen)
UK comedy duo Jack and Dean started on YouTube with rough but promising sketches. Over the last few years these sketches made a quantum leap in quality, both in creativity and execution. Now they’re the top of the pack when it comes to young British digital talent. FullScreen, the subscription service specialising in online talent, recognised this and commissioned Jack & Dean Of All Trades, a comedy series where the titular pair play exaggerated versions of themselves who each week are given a new temp job by none other than British comedy legend Jessica Hynes. Written and directed by the pair, this is a sweet natured but very funny workplace bromance, and although only lasting two seasons, points to a bright future (hopefully on Channel 4 or BBC Three…).
Claudia O’Doherty’s What Is? – All4
An All4 “Comedy Blap” from 2013, Claudia O’Doherty’s What Is? poses as a series of educational travel films for a family owned Australian travel company. While she now may be better known for her role as Bertie on Netflix’s Love, What Is? showed O’Doherty — a gifted writer and performer of surreal brilliance — taking what could have been a flat set-up and injecting it with off-kilter asides, mannerisms, and interludes. Sadly only one season of it exists, but we can hope that O’Doherty is given her own full length show soon.
The Gay And Wondrous Life Of Caleb Gallo – YouTube
Surely destined for bigger things, Brian Jordan Alvarez’s manic web series has already garnered awards and press — despite its difficult to remember name and seemingly tired premise about the love life of five actors in LA. But the ace up its sleeve is that it’s truly brilliant, culturally aware, smartly funny, and utterly, charmingly bonkers. This is our world, but skewed so much that the normal rules of reality don’t apply. It’s truly gender fluid, siblings are different ethnicities, and performed at a breakneck pace. Go watch it.
Good Luck America (Snapchat)
In a world where literally nothing makes sense anymore, Good Luck America is a shining beacon of smart rationality. Hosted by Peter Hamby, former political correspondent from CNN and now Head of News at Snapchat, this is a searingly honest and hilarious portrayal of the politics of modern America. It started back during the 2016 US Presidential Election (Remember that? It actually wasn’t that long ago…), and proved the perfect message for the medium. Shot in vertical and presented in 10 sec bit-sized chunks, it mixes sharp yet easy to digest analysis with interviews with presidential hopeful Deez Nuts. Superb.
Subway: The Series (YouTube)
Not a show about the ubiquitous delicious smelling but ultimately empty sandwich shop chain, but a series detailing modern life on the New York underground. Creator and star Veronica Dang was inspired to create the series due to the lack of roles out there for Asian-American actors. Not wanting to be a stereotype, she created this series about universal truths shared by a newcomer to the city. These universal truths are the oddballs she meets on the subway, something anyone who has ever used public transport can relate to.