2013 may well be remembered as the year that the Internet established itself as a bona fide alternative to TV for original programming. But what Netflix, Amazon and Hulu accomplished isn’t really fundamentally different than TV in terms of production economics or even creative sensibility; the subscription VOD model is just the same old wine poured from newer (IP-delivered) bottles. That trend obscures a lower-budget but more creatively diverse tier of free online content available from a wider range of sources either on YouTube or other Internet portals. They run the gamut from amateur creators you may have never heard of (yet) to more professionally slick properties from outfits that may become the big media companies of tomorrow. Putting aside viral one-off phenomena and “House of Cards,” here’s the best (free) web content of 2013:
The second web series for Orlando Jones, the co-star of the TV show “Sleepy Hollow,” is even better than his first YouTube attempt. “Tainted Love” is a gritty, sometimes funny, very sexy digital graphic novel, and while primarily live-action, gets around YouTube’s filters by animating its more mature scenes which include lovemaking and gunfights. YouTube can be for adults, too.
This low-fi web series is a surprise hit, given hardly anyone is under 30 or recognizable as any type of celebrity. Created by Dennis Mareno and Joe Thomas, “Johnny Dynamo” has charm and proves succinct content (or one catering to a younger audience) isn’t always the road to web series popularity. The series follows Robert Pierce Mitchell, a disgraced action movie star from the 80’s as he tries to make a comeback under a wily and unconventional management team keen on making a name for themselves.
Jack Black’s paranormal web series spoofing shows like SyFy’s “Ghost Hunters” is absolutely hysterical. Paranormal investigators Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci struggle to do their jobs as amateurs, but their witty dynamic has attracted more mainstream audiences like the staff of Gawker-owned Jezebel. Guest actors include Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Jack Black himself, Val Kilmer, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Odenkirk, and Kumail Nanjiani and Natasha Leggero. From Black’s production company Electric Dynamite and Shine America.
Ray William Johnson, once the most popular YouTubers, has broken away from Maker Studios and his usual brash style with this poignant 50-minute web series and it has paid off. Premiering first on Facebook, “Riley Rewind” is a scripted super-hero sci-fi series starring his real-life girlfriend Anna Akana as a do-good junior in high school with special power — not him telling jokes about viral videos in front of a camera. The writing, acting, special effects and original music make this the best thing he’s done to date. Look for more to come from his new production company, Runaway Machine.
Upright Citizen Brigade members Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata play two hilarious, “broke, single, and (adorably!) self-absorbed” young women looking for love, when they’re not fantasizing about trashing an upscale thrift shop or failing in their panhandling subway schemes. If Zamata does become the newest “Saturday Night Live” cast member, “Pursuit of Sexiness” is a fantastic example of her writing and comedic acting. And it’s not comparable to “Girls,” so lady mags, please stop writing that.
Philip DeFranco knows the YouTube generation better than most YouTubers, and his news and entertainment spin-off channel SourceFed — now in its second year — is a hit among the vieweres twentysomething and under that frequent the video-sharing site, and it’s better than the Young Turks. Originally part of YouTube’s original channel initiative, SourceFed has become its own news website sharing “everything that matters” under the Discovery Communications umbrella.
Overlooked despite being promoted by Sarah Silverman, “Little Horribles” is an awkward, addictive web series with a Louis CK or “Curb Your Own Enthusiasm” vibe. Starring Amy York Rubin as a self-indulgent lesbian with a penchant for making bad decisions, including masturbating in inappropriate places, this series of video vignettes is a low-fi gem. (Produced by Rubin and Barnacle Studios)
This hilarious parody of reality TV dating shows like The Bachelor Pad and The Bachelorette is no joke, and its witty writing and top-notch cast — including the likes of Ken Marino, Michael Cera, Natasha Leggero, Paul Scheer, Kumail Nanjiani, Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston — prove Yahoo is serious when it comes to original programming. Season three has contestants competing for $900, a large cash prize that blows the contestants minds every time it is mentioned. From Paramount’s Insurge Pictures and Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Digital.
Following the success of the “Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” Hank Green and Bernie Su have teamed up again to bring the YouTube masses another Jane Austen tale, this time, a modern take on “Emma” titled “Emma Approved.” Five to 10 minute episodes shot in the form of vlogs are supplemented with in-character blog and style posts, tweets and other social media making it one of the few series out there with some transmedia storytelling chops.
Freddie Wong’s been working his winning formula of action-packed, explosion-heavy videogame and other nerd-related content for years, but his series — now in its second season — has some intense game. Boy gets girl and impresses everyone with his amazing video game skills in this feel-good, action-packed comedy co-starring Harley Morenstein from “Epic Meal Time” and occasionally Freddie Wong himself. It was shot at the YouTube Space soundstage in Los Angeles, and the production quality really shows. (Rocket Jump Studios)