As entertainment moves to the streaming and Web spaces, everyone from James Franco to the kids from your college theater club is picking up a camera and trying out a webseries. That means there’s a glut of entertainment options out there, on a variety of sources that constitute the digital space. A few years ago, something produced by Hulu or Netflix might make its way onto a year-end webseries list, but now those shows have carved their own streaming niche and crossed over into Emmy-award winning and mainstream attention. The path from digitally produced content to the prime water cooler conversation piece is getting shorter and shorter as YouTube-incubated shows like Broad City and Epic Meal Time make the digital leap to our TVs. In 2014 more brilliant shows have been cooking up on the Internet, many with backing from traditional media companies like AOL or MTV, but others with more tried and true digital roots.
Which webseries caught our eyes in 2014? Read on to find the 9 series that stood out, from deadpan character studies to travel shows to cartoons and everything in between.
9) Pancake Breakfast Critic
Joe Pera’s character comedy about reviewing charity pancake breakfasts and other small town is a welcome bit of weird in the webseries landscape. Pancake Breakfast Critic is true to its name, with Pera rating pancake breakfasts on the “OK” scale and chatting with local townsfolk. The series is produced by MTV Other, which is a bastion of off-kilter Web content that harkens to the golden days of culture-defining MTV moments.
By episode 2 Pena picks up a sidekick, the profane Jeff Katsman who’s meant to liven things up and clearly get under Pera’s skin. Katsman swiftly steals Pera’s coveted rhubarb-judging position, and you watch the anger simmer under Pera’s otherwise monotone demeanor. The series is short, but hopefully there’s more to come.
8) 52 Ways to Break Up
52 Ways to Break Up explores the moment in a relationship when you know it’s over. Each episode stars creator Megan Rosati as half of the ill-fated couple as they decide to call it quits. In each vignette, the viewer gets a story with as much emotional punch as other webseries take full seasons to build. “Bad Timing” explores when two people who’ve hit it off on a first date realize they’ll be unavailable to each other for more than two years, while in “Give Up,” a longstanding couple admits that it’s already over. The series combines people’s noisy tendencies with their hopeless romanticism, and you can’t help but click next video. So far the series is only nine deep of its implied 52, and each feels as fresh as the first.
7) True Trans With Laura Jane Grace
As fictional trans people like Sophia on Orange Is the New Black and Transparent’s Maura gain screentime and their actors and actresses critical acclaim, online there’s a webseries that dives into the reality of the trans community. The AOL Originals series True Trans follows Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Against Me!, who announced her transition in 2012 in the pages of Rolling Stone. The series focuses both on Grace’s individual story of transition and the support of her family, friends, and musical community, but also on the stories of trans people Grace encounters as she travels with Against Me!. With so many fictional champions in the trans community, it’s refreshing to see digital media celebrating the real people living outside of a TV show.
6) Everything But the News
Steve Goldbloom has gotten the break of his lifetime as a cub reporter for PBS, and of course immediately things start going wrong. The Jim Lehrer-inspired reporter strikes out to create content about a tech world he barely understands, all while his producer calls and berates his output. It’s true to its title: We see a lot more of the ideas and bits behind how Goldbloom wants to put together a news piece than the news he’s supposed to be sharing, but because this is PBS Digital Studios, the learning sneaks in. Each topic mirrors a hurdle in Goldbloom’s professional and personal life, and by the end of season 1, it’s all predictably gone off the rails.
Luckily, a second season has just started, putting Goldbloom back in the tech saddle, but this time instead of segments that try to cover a plethora of business under a single umbrella, the series focuses more on one-off or single-persona profiles.
Two of YouTube’s biggest comedic stars partnered on a travel adventure that took social suggestion into account in 2014. In #HeyUSA, vloggers Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart explored the country and engaged in travel activities as suggested by and voted on by their fans on social media. That meant the duo drank vodka shots made with glacial snow, kidnapped their biggest fan Coby, and learned the two-step. Despite having a full crew at their disposal, Hart and Helbig approach this project the same way they do their vlogs, which means no-holds-barred talk about their cramps and only belatedly realizing their sound guy has to listen in. Even more unique, that take makes the cut, giving travel shows a much needed shake-up. While short clips are available on the Astronauts Wanted channel, full episodes are available on TheScene.com.
4) Video Game High School
Video Game High School is one of YouTube’s biggest productions, in more ways than one. It draws high-profile guest stars (like Conan O’Brien and Tony Hawk in the first few minutes of its third and final season premiere), it took home Streamy Awards for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Directing, and it has flashy, well-done special effects that put it on par with any Hollywood production. But it’s the story of BrianD’s accidental admission to a prestigious video game–focused high school and his interactions with the cast of characters there that keep fans coming back, and its imaginable future of esports domination makes it one of YouTube’s best.
3) James Franco: Making a Scene
James Franco has had a busy year in 2014. Aside from being a part of an international data leak scandal and unprecedented movie industry moment, he also fronted a highly successful webseries. Making a Scene has a simple premise: Franco’s production team sits together and dreams up reinventions of iconic film scenes, either by mashing two together or changing the genre. They spin a wheel, brainstorm for a few moments, and then launch into a version of the scene starring Franco—and that’s where it truly comes alive. It’s not boring even done 10 times, since in each turn, Franco gives a fresh performance and his creative team. Sure, the idea of Franco as avant garde artist is a little exhausting, but his webseries is anything but.
2) Bee and Puppycat
Although the first episode of Bee and Puppycat aired in 2013 on Frederator, it took 15 months and $872,000 of backing from fans to transform the amazing 10-minute short into a full-fledged series. Bee and Puppycat is an animated series featuring Bee, a lethargic but compelling young woman, and her mysterious intergalactic “puppycat” that she finds on the street. Bee and Puppycat’s creator, Natasha Allegri, is a staff writer for another Frederator project Adventure Time, and the aesthetic she brought to her new series generated legions of fans. This year the newly minted series introduces us to more characters, expands on the few we’d already met, and taps various YouTube talent like Hannah Hart for voiceover roles.
1) Frankenstein, M.D.
From the creative minds that brought us The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved, this year’s literary adaptation from Pemberley Digital broke the mold. Frankenstein, M.D. is a reimagination of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a genderbent lead who’s researching at a university. The vlog style remained, but the series marked a partnership between Pemberley and PBS Digital Studios that transformed it from simply a narrative to an educational series. PBS Digital has long served up educational programming, and Frankenstein M.D. succeeded by mashing up will-they-or-won’t-they suspense with actual, practical modern science applications for reviving human life. And if YouTube loves anything, it’s a mashup.
Screengrab via PBS/YouTube