The ability of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon to deliver series that creatively, financially and critically rival that of network TV has significantly increased interest in—and decreased stigmas about—web-based media. Critical and audience reception of short form digital content is changing, and fast: No longer are web series associated only with low-budget or one-off pastime projects. Digital streaming platforms like YouTube Red and Comic Con HQ have turned the Internet into a home for original and progressive storytelling. Driven by that changing perception, this year saw one of digital short form’s strongest and smartest showings yet. In the age of “peak TV,” viewing on the go and crowd-sourced financing, these are the 2016 web series that prove the future of digital media is already here.
10. What’s Underneath
Creators: Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum
For the last three years, mother-daughter team Elisa Goodkind and Lily Mandelbaum have asked Muslim millennials, expecting mothers, HIV-positive singers and non-traditional models to answer one question: What does your style say about you? This season saw the duo take their trademark approach to “baring it all” beyond U.S. borders for another series of compelling conversations about one-dimensional beauty standards. As 17 people literally strip down in front of their camera, Goodkind and Mandelbaum sensitively capture honest dialogue about gender, physical illness, race, weight, mental health, sexuality and religion, dismantling our harmful and often internalized style trends, norms and stereotypes. The decision to pull from a global perspective this season allows the profound recollections and reflections of participants to reach new heights as we explore everything from being fuckable while fat to embracing the headscarf in a post-9/11 world. What’s Underneath continues to provide a platform for careful and courageous discourse on how style can define our identity—and, more importantly, the ways in which embracing our identity can redefine our style.
9. Precious Cargo
Creators: Lauren Singerman, Sasha Kaye and Dano Madden
Vimeo is home to this offbeat and shameless comedy about a musical theater hopeful who tutors the children of New York’s urban elite. Driven by their ruthless, achievement-based culture, nothing but the best will do for America’s richest. That means earning present and future bragging rights about where their children go to school. Enter Lisa, a struggling twenty-something who—when she’s not being constantly rejected in auditions or being compared to her jobless and directionless older sister, Sandy—spends her time preparing the one-percenters of the future for the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam). After Sandy fails to find her calling (yet again), Lisa helps gets her sister a job working as an ISEE tutor. It doesn’t take long before she slowly loses her grip as the overhyped and incompetent Sandy earns the praises of their mother, boss, a potential boyfriend and the parents of the utterly spoiled and sometimes sociopathic children they struggle to tutor. This seven-episode web series is an uncomfortably accurate satire of the lengths most of us must go to make our ambitions come true, and the distressing reality that for some people, achievement is just a dollar sign away.
8. Hip-Hop Homeland
Creator: 101 India
In this musical docuseries, India 101 examines how hip-hop—as both musical genre and form of self-expression—is influencing an entire generation an ocean over. Nine separate profiles chronicle the scope of Mumbai’s burgeoning underground hip-hop scene, where an American community’s identity is mixing with India’s traditional sounds. Each 10- to 15-minute episode uncovers how Indian MCs, graffiti artists, B-boys and crews are turning an emerging trend into its own distinctive and vibrant musical culture, one that not only speaks to artistic conditions, but also challenges perceptions of the artists themselves. Hip-Hop Homeland is at once a vivid journey through the history of a developing music scene and an unfettered look at how an American musical ideology is igniting a cultural fire in Mumbai’s slums and chawls.
7. Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest
Creators: Mark Hamill and Howard Kazanjian
In recent years, the TV landscape has become saturated with two seemingly niche interests: comics and collecting. Superheroes and professional pickers fill network line-ups, revealing a growing fascination with the world of hobby enthusiasts. Star Wars and Batman legend Mark Hamill explores the intersection of these trends in his very own Comic-Con HQ series, Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest. A self-proclaimed collector, Hamill and his puppet sidekick take viewers on a deep dive into the fascinating world of geeky collectors and reveal the origins of our most passionate fans and fandoms. Celebrated artists like the legendary Jim Lee and influential collectors like Godzilla aficionado Scott Zillner and movie prop appreciator Bob Burns sit down and discuss their lifelong passions. Meanwhile, audiences get an inside look at DC Comics headquarters and the homes of pop culture collectors, all filled to the brim with recognizable comic book and pop-culture memorabilia. Get an up-close look at some of the world’s greatest collections and the people that make them a reality in this quirky and insightful series.
6. Paranormal Action Squad
Creator: Michael Rowe
YouTube gaming sensations Vanoss (Evan Fong), SeaNanners (Adam Montoya) and Mr_Sark (Scott Matthew Robison) are the voices behind this referential, off-color sci-fi comedy. The first animated series on YouTube’s original content platform, YouTube Red, Paranormal Action Squad follows somewhat awkward and ill-equipped spirit enthusiasts Paul (Montoya) and Eddie (Robison) as they work to make “the living dead dead again.” Joined by squad-mates Orb (a tiny “cool girl” in a purple orb) and PAD (a brassy and hyper-literal ‘80s computer), the duo takes down demonic DJs who ensnare spirits in eternal dance parties and use “bruh” unironically. Vanoss, their enthusiastic, underappreciated, owl-headed neighbor, tags along for these desperate and hilarious occult dilemmas, adding a much-appreciated level of off-the-wall action. Rowe successfully infuses his hallmark comic timing, tension, physicality and dialogue from past projects like Coach, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Futurama into this pop-culturally clever, two-dimensional spoof on paranormal programming. Paranormal Action Squad’s oddball absurdity is a shining example of why so many find adult animation so appealing.
5. That’s My DJ
Creator: D.W. Waterson
Heed the white-lettered warning that flashes at the beginning of this sexy Canadian web series. That’s My DJ is a 100 percent entrancing ride through Toronto’s club scene, best viewed full screen, in the dark and with the volume all the way up. The second season of this music-driven show delivers yet another hypnotic glimpse into the lives, loves, work and never-ending parties of its fictional group of young promoters, DJs and artists. Season Two pivots its focus to Meagan (Emily Piggford), a supporting character from Season One, as she organizes her own event, titled “Home Brew.” Things get complicated, though, after Hannah (Dayle McLeod), a DJ friend of a friend, catches Meagan’s eye in this short lesson on the promise and peril of mixing business with pleasure. Creator D.W. Waterson’s own experience spinning tracks continues to serve as a life force for the show, pumping emotional and physical realism through the veins of each episode. Welcome warfare on your senses, That’s My DJ is dramatically calculated but creatively organic, delivering the sights, sounds, setbacks and successes of the electronic music scene.
4. The Katering Show
Creators: Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan
Since the release of Burning Love in 2012, more and more short form series have begun using our guiltiest unscripted obsessions as comic fodder. For Australian creative duo and The Katering Show’s creators Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, that means mercilessly mocking TV’s preoccupation with cooking in front of a camera. The self-described attractive TV chefs’ trademark shooting styles and episode format are equal parts Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Julia Child’s kitchen and midnight cooking infomercial. Their hilarious spin on culinary series aims to capture our “cultural food revolution,” from intolerances to food trucks. However, it’s really the Kates’ willingness to bring anything into their kitchen—street food, raw food, cooked food, food porn and regular porn—that nails their near perfect parody of the genre. Season One was pretty outlandish, but Season Two takes the funny even further as they cover the food waste movement, fad diets and cooking with placenta. Whether you’re a casual foodie, an experienced cuisine aficionado or just someone looking for a seriously good laugh, you’ll enjoy McCartney and McLennan’s raucous commentary on our food fixation.
3. Single by 30
Creators: Wesley Chan and Philip Wang
An endearing romantic comedy, Single By 30 explores what happens after the promises we make in our youth come back to help us. This friends-to-lovers tale follows Peter (Glee’s Harry Shum, Jr.) and Joanna (Kina Grannis), besties from high school who drift apart after graduation. When life unexpectedly brings Joanna back home, the still-single and almost-30 friends reconnect. Determined to marry before they “age out,” the two assist one another in their relationship quests, with one condition: If they can’t find someone, they’ll fall back on their high school pact to marry each other. Romantic dramedies largely went out of style in the mid-2000s, but Single by 30 is an earnest return to form that’s defined not by any cheesy, circumstantial romanticism, but rather by its authentic realization of loving in a modern age. Outside of the talented cast’s charming chemistry, the series’ greatest strength lies in its ability to reflect the exhilaration and complication of love in the now—from managing a Tinder account and moving in together to generational discrepancies and a diversifying dating pool. This short form selection addresses the nuances of romance for the millennial generation while delivering a sincere and refreshing look at the perpetual struggle of finding (and falling in) love.
2. Inhuman Condition
Creator: RJ Lackie
From KindaTV comes supernatural drama Inhuman Condition, a critically acclaimed, 33-episode series set in a world where the supernatural is an acknowledged—if not always accepted—way of life. Torri Higginson (Stargate: Atlantis) stars as Dr. Michelle Kessler, a court-ordered therapist who meets with “inhuman” patients, or three gifted and tortured people living with supernatural afflictions like lycanthropy or zombieism. They attend Kessler’s therapy sessions with a single goal: find a way to control what makes them dangerous. Sci-fi is already difficult to master on traditional TV (what with the small screen’s tighter production schedules and limited budgets), but Inhuman Condition uses the limitations of its storytelling format to its advantage. Shortened screen time and a minimal use of visual effects amp up the mystery behind both the inhuman and human characters’ terrifying or monstrous potentials. This well acted and edited Hitchcockian approach to thrills allows viewers’ imaginations to do the show’s heavy lifting while its characters drive complex and mindful conversations about real-world issues. Storylines both directly and indirectly tackle discrimination, radical resistance, anxiety disorders and disease, giving a dark edge to even the characters’ more mundane plots.
1. Her Story
Creators: Jen Richards and Laura Zak
In a year that offered viewers the largest presence of LGBTQ characters in TV history, according to GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are On TV” report, Her Story easily earned the distinction of being 2016’s most timely and groundbreaking addition. The Emmy-nominated and Gotham Award-winning show follows a diverse set of queer and trans women living in Los Angeles. Before you go comparing it to The L Word, know that this six-episode web series brings an unmatched sensitivity and authenticity to its subject matter. That includes the gender and trans identity debate, queer and female rights, as well as the distinctive and at times dangerous dance of falling in love as a member of the LGBTQ community. Led by two trans women, both played by two trans actresses, this intelligent and frank slice-of-life revolves around Violet (Jen Richards) and Paige (Angelica Ross) as they navigate work, friendship, relationships and sexuality. Her Story’s heart-melting romanticism, beautifully resilient characters and fearless exploration of trans issues (when do you disclose your gender identity while dating?) make it a story without competition or comparison. Online or off, behind the camera and in front of it, Her Story is the definition of a storytelling trailblazer.
Abbey White is a freelance entertainment, fandom and identities journalist who has written for 5280 Magazine, USA TODAY Network, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, The Tempest, ScreenSpy and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. She currently lives in Denver and calls Cleveland home, but she’ll soon be making the move New York City to work as an editorial intern for The Nation magazine.