The 13 Best YouTube Premium TV Shows, Ranked
Because Google doesn’t yet command enough of your screen time.TV Lists YouTube Premium
Née YouTube Red, the recently-rebranded YouTube Premium is the paywalled platform within which a highly curated collection of Hollywood-level YouTube Original Series live. Well, technically YouTube Premium is a whole suite of services that includes not just access to Cobra Kai (and everything else on the list below), but also ad-free streaming on regular YouTube, background streaming when playing videos on your phone, downloadable videos and access to YouTube Music Premium. All this for $11.99/month ($6.99/month for students whose schools use SheerID), following a 30-day free trial.*
*Of Note: Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s Chief Business Officer, announced in May 2019 that this paywall will drop for individual Original Series for brief windows of time moving forward, during which time those series will air with ads like regular TV.
If you’re coming to YouTube Premium purely as a fan of television, this shockingly high sticker price has likely been the primary deterrent to diving in. If you watch enough regular YouTube that being interrupted by ads on every video represents a significant cut into your short time on this Earth, though—or if you listen to a wide enough variety of music that you’re shelling out for a subscription to a music service each month anyway—that $11.99/month cost takes on a new light. And if you’re part of a family (however you might define the term) whose members might all find those arguments compelling? Well, in that case you can get a plan that costs $17.99/month, which (even with just two members in the “family”) still splits into Netflix-equivalent pricing.
That said, I know that no matter how hard I work to find you the best (cheapest) way in, the legit value of the non-Cobra Kai Originals behind the Premium wall is just going to be a tough sell, not least because YouTube Originals live in the bizarre no-man’s land halfway between the streaming video juggernaut that is classic YouTube—home of Vlogbrothers, Hot Ones, Contrapoints, ASMR makeup tutorials and the capitalist algorithm-driven rightwing dickbaggery downfall of modern democracy—and the prestige-y dark horse baby that is YouTube Premium.
Below are the 13 best Original Series currently available on YouTube Premium. To keep the list from getting out of control, it is limited to series. Meaning, no films. (Sorry, Kedi!) The genres of these series range from comedy procedurals to prestige sci-fi to an animated family adventure to a behind-the-scenes extravaganza. Some of the series have already been canceled, some renewed, and some are still pending. All are great.
Honorable Mentions: Dallas & Robo (Adult Animation), IDOLiSH7: VIbrato (Anime), Rhett and Link’s Buddy System (Comedy), Top Management (K-Drama), Youth and Consequences (Teen Drama)
Genre: Science Fiction/Drama
Created by: Mika Watkins
Stars: Natalia Tena, Tom Felton, Sen Mitsuji, Nora Arnezeder, Fraser James, Philipp Christopher, Madalyn Horcher, Siobhán Cullen
I’m the first to say, as globally hyped as it was, and with the production budget it appears to have been given, Origin just didn’t come together enough at any point in its short first season run to earn further seasons. The characters make insensible decisions from the jump, and the mystery, such as it is, isn’t given enough context early enough on for the viewer to grab hold of.
That said, I’m including it on this list because, despite giving it a tepid review after seeing the few episodes that had been provided for review and then privately decreasing that tepid take to a downright pan upon finishing the series, I have found myself, in the many months since, thinking about the final episode with alarming regularity. The question of self and who deserves to claim it looms large of the series, and while I wish the series as a whole could have tangled with those questions better, I am increasingly glad that I watched it. I know, I know! Long-percolating takes are anathema to Peak TV criticism, but hey, maybe that should change.
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Created by: Carly Craig, Daniel Reisinger
Stars: Carly Craig, Rosanna Arquette, Chelsea Frei, Craig Frank, Alice Lee, tons of splashy cameos
On paper, Carly Craig’s Sideswiped—an eight-episode original series following a gun-shy single woman named Olivia Maple (Craig) as she throws herself into dates with the 252 Tinder matches she swiped right on in a panicked, drunken fuzz while out with her mother (Rosanna Arquette) and sister (Chelsea Frei) on her 35th birthday—reads as the most reductive kind of cliché. In practice, if you’re a fan of relationship dramedies like Please Like Me, Catastrophe and Lovesick, Sideswiped might be just the ticket. Canceled, alas, before Olivia could find The One, the eight comedic star-studded episodes of the first (and only) season nevertheless work as a remarkably (if occasionally cringingly) sweet, complete modern rom-com, in which the emphasis on Olivia’s family connections is just as important as the sexier connections she’s making on Tinder.
Genre: Animated Family/Kids/Action & Adventure
Created by: Diana Manson, Megan Laughton
Stars: Anya Chalotra, Tyler Posey, Aneurin Barnard, Jamie Chung, Rachel House, Adetokumboh M’Cormack, Joseph Fiennes
Sherwood may look like a cousin to Clone Wars, but this animated series, created by Diana Manson and Megan Laughton and animated by Giant Animation and Toybox, is an original. Revamping the Robin Hood story to star a teen girl in a dystopic kingdom of Sherwood in the flooded aftermath of today’s climate crisis, Sherwood features scenes that are so compellingly layered visually and a dystopic world that is so distressingly believable that it can be forgiven for featuring fairly prosaic villains and hinging half the time on a blood-borne MacGuffin. Am I particularly swayed by the inclusion of Tyler Posey as one of the lead voice actors? Naturally! But as a fan of smart kids’ television, I can appreciate it for its own merits, too. Whether or not many families out there are planning to look to YouTube Premium for their next binge is an open question, but in the meantime, if family-friendly animation is your thing regardless of any family being around, give this one a shot.
10. Best Shot
Created by: Michael John Warren, with Executive Producers LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Andrew Fried, Dane Lillegard and Jordan Wynn
Stars: Jay Williams, Shawn McCray and the 2017-2018 Newark Central boys basketball team
Produced in partnership with the NBA, Best Shot is a docuseries not just for fans of basketball, or fans of 30 for 30, or fans of LeBron James and Jay Williams. It’s for fans of human stories, as it follows the lives of boys playing for the 2017-2018 Newark Central High School basketball team with such compassion. Directed by eight-time Emmy-nominated director Michael John Warren (Fade to Black, Better Than Good Enough), Best Shot is the kind of series that makes you care more deeply about the world we live in, and the people we live in it with. The “where are they now” montage at the end is a bit cheesy, considering that not even a year had passed between the final day of shooting and the series premiere in late 2018, but beyond that, it is a quiet, heartfelt, thrilling watch.
9. BTS: Burn the Stage
Created by: BANGTANTV
Stars: BTS (Nam-joon Kim, Seok-jin Kim, Ji-min Park, Tae-Hyung Kim, J-Hope, Jeong-guk Jeon, Suga)
The K-pop group BTS is huge. The 2018 behind-the-tour documentary film BTS: Burn the Stage was huge. The BTS: Burn the Stage docuseries, drawn out from the feature film using more footage of the members in their backstage lives, is, you guessed it, huge. As someone who understands next to nothing about K-pop, I can’t be a reliable reporter of what this docuseries means for fans. As a critic who spent some time tracking down fans’ reactions to the series, I can tell you that being given so much time inside the quiet, intimate moments behind the scenes of the group’s massive 2017-2018 world tour means the absolute world to BTS fans. If that’s you (or if you’re curious what being in the BTS fandom might be like), this docuseries will very much be your jam.
8. Mind Field
Created by: Michael Stevens/Vsauce
Stars: Michael Stevens
Vsauce (Michael Stevens) has been an entertainingly smart part of the YouTube landscape since 2010, so it’s no wonder that when YouTube was spinning out YouTube Premium (then Red), Stevens was on their list of creators to hoist up to the big leagues. Unlike the majority of entries on this list, Mind Field is an educational reality series that spends each episode diving into a mystery of the mind. Were it to run on linear television, it would most likely find a home on Discovery or Science or truTV. On YouTube Premium, though, it gets to exist on its own terms, with Stevens bringing in his own fans.
The first episode of the third season, which follows Stevens to Japan and sets his skills of rapid pattern retention against that of monkeys, is currently available to watch for free, which I highly recommend everyone do. If nothing else, you will be shocked to learn how dismal your short-term memory is compared to sixty year old primates.
7. Champaign ILL
Created by: Jordan Cahan, David Caspe, Daniel Libman, Matthew Libman
Stars: Adam Pally, Sam Richardson, Keith David, Allyce Beasley, Curtis Armstrong, Sabrina Revelle, Danielle Schneider, Jay Pharoah, Neil Casey, Rich Sommer
Adam Pally? Sam Richardson? David Caspe? Jay Pharoah? Premiering in December and getting canceled mere months later, Champaign ILL barely had enough time on the mean SVOD streets to take a breath, but with such a rock solid team behind it, you know it’s worth checking out even beyond the grave. Which, to that point, is exactly what this series is about: Two lifelong friends (Pally and Richardson) learning how to be real adults in the wake of the sudden accidental death of the hip hop superstar best friend (Jay Pharoah) whose entourage they had been in since high school graduation. The show gets dark, and several dogs die (spoiler), but in the end it is a heartfelt testament to the power and depth of friendship, and sharp enough that you’ll be surprised it didn’t end up playing opposite The Other Two on Comedy Central. As a bonus, it also ends on a note that serves as well as a series finale as it might have as a season cliffhanger, so go forth and enjoy Pally and Richardson making bad decisions with no fear that you’ll be left hanging by the end.
6. Liza on Demand
Genre: Adult Comedy
Created by: Liza Koshy, Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan
Stars: Liza Koshy, Kimiko Glenn, Travis Coles
Brought to you by the team behind no less than Josie and the Pussycats, Liza on Demand is a sitcom in the I Love Lucy vein that follows around twentysomething professional gigger Liza as she races around L.A. with her roommates Harlow (Kimiko Glenn, Orange is the New Black) and Oliver (Travis Coles, David Makes Man) in an increasingly harried attempt to attain Elite Task-It Status. It is also one of only a few entries on this list that stars a real YouTuber, and all the time Koshy has spent honing her comedic timing and on-camera presence really shows. She is a tiny magnetic goofball whose dreams, as small and inane as they are, immediately become your dreams, and whose shortcomings, as overwhelming and painfully “oh god, it me” as they can be, will immediately make you break out it stress sweat. Plus, the Season 1 finale is basically The Hangover meets Step Up, which, so fun?
5. Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television
Created by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Stars: Ryan Hansen, Samira Wiley, Aly Michalka, Wood Harris (Season 2), Jon Cryer, Karen David, Jessica St. Clair (Season 2)
I’ve written previously about the unique features YouTube offers, both as a social network and as a service with youthful, off-the-wall creativity baked deep enough into its source code that not even the Google-monster has yet managed to quash it, that more traditional platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and most every niche entry in our ongoing Scrolling… series just don’t, and nowhere on this list does a series more deliciously prove my point than right here, with Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television.
Starring Ryan Hansen as a (presumably barely) exaggerated version of himself as a celebrity consultant assigned by the mayor to shadow an LAPD detective (Samira Wiley in Season 1, Wood Harris in Season 2), Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television is a viciously self-aware send-up of celebrity, Los Angeles, police procedurals, the television industry, YouTube, YouTube Red, YouTube Premium, black police captain stereotypes, lady police captain stereotypes, #TimesUp, Frozen, sneaker culture, and literally any other institution they can get their hands on. It knows it’s on YouTube, and plays with that fact both as form and plot device. Paste readers will obviously get a kick out of Kristen Bell’s episode, but for my money the real standout is “The Rhy Chromosome” (2.05), in which an inclusion rider Ryan sets up halfway through the episode results in… well, sign up for YT Preems and see for yourself.
Genre: Teen Action Comedy
Creator: Shawn Simmons
Stars: Mark McKenna, Ciara Bravo, Joshua J. Williams, Dean Winters, Stephen Kearin, James Earl, Jon Champagne, Jamie Champagne, Mike O’Malley, Francesco Antonio, Michaela Watkins
I have praised Wayne enough in Paste’s digital pages that I worry people might start to suspect me of being on the series’ payroll, but truly, I just fucking love Wayne. To that end, let me just quote myself real quick:
To get you interested in YouTube’s new original comedy, Wayne, all I really need to say is that it’s basically John Wick meets John Hughes, with Wayne (Sing Street’s Mark McKenna) as a kind of magnetically angsty cross between Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye—you know, if instead of middle-class Chicago affluence and deep wells of self-interest, Ferris and Cameron had grown up in Brockton, Massachusetts with shit luck, no money, and a violent desire to make bad people pay, and if instead of a day playing hooky with cool girl Sloane in Cameron’s dad’s borrowed sports car, they’d helped a no-shit-taking neighbor girl (Del, played with deadpan genius by Ciara Bravo) kidnap herself away from an oppressively scary home situation by whisking her off on the back of a dinky motorcycle to Florida to steal a stolen sports car back.
I mean, seriously! How can you not be shelling out for a free 30-day trial of Premium THIS INSTANT! Fucking do it, man. Wayne is great.
3. Step Up: High Water
Creator: Holly Sorensen
Stars: Lauryn McClain (Season 1), Petrice Jones, Marcus Mitchell, Terrence Green, Carlito Olivero, Jade Chynoweth, Kendra Oyesanya, Eric Graise, Faizon Love, Ne-Yo, Naya Rivera, Jeremy Copeland (Season 2), Ashley Greene (Season 2)
Step Up: High Water is slick as F*CK. Initially positioned as a coming-of-age teen drama about twins Tal (Petrice Jones) and Janelle (Lauryn McClain) moving in with their Atlanta-based Uncle Al (an exceptional Faizon Love) and fighting their way towards acceptance at the elite High Water arts academy for low-income youth founded by hip-hop legend Sage Odom (Ne-Yo), Step Up: High Water is now, at the end of its second season, a fully fledged, dramatically dense art-soap masterpiece to rival the likes of network behemoths like Empire and Star. Your mileage may vary over how much satisfaction you get out of Sage Odom’s narcissistic superstar Drama overtaking the coming-of-age storyline in Season 2, which is narratively so far removed from Season 1 that not one does Tal get hardly any dialogue anymore, but Janelle isn’t even on the show. That twist to the premise almost doesn’t matter, though, as Step Up: High Water is so densely packed with compelling and devastatingly talented characters (I mean, see the clip above!) that even when the story lingers in corners that you (I) couldn’t care less about, there’s still killer dancing. As of publication, renewal is still pending, but given the grand precipice the Season 2 finale leaves all the characters on and the fact that the series “achieved unprecedented viewership for its Season 2 premiere” (as reported by YouTube), a renewal announcement has to be just around the corner.
Genre: Science Fiction/Teen Drama
Created by: Jeffrey Lieber, based on Steven Gould’s novel; Executive produced by Lauren LeFranc (showrunner), Doug Liman, David Bartis and Gene Klein
Stars: Maddie Hasson, Sarah Desjardins, Daniel Maslany, Enuka Okuma, Craig Arnold, Tanner Stine, Missi Pyle, David James Elliott, Callum Keith Rennie, Keon Alexander
Few new series thrilled me as much in 2018 as the Maddie Hasson-starring Impulse, which took the superpowered world that had already been adapted from Steven Gould’s sci-fi novels once for film (Jumper) and shrank the narrative focus down to a single teenage girl living a broken, isolated life in a broken, isolated Canada-adjacent town. Much of the thrill came from the high quality of the show, itself—Hasson is a sparking marvel; the tension between Big Sci-Fi Thriller and Small Assault Survival Story is both beautifully visualized and taut as hell; the soundtrack bangs—but just as much came from the fact that YouTube wasn’t just the streaming platform Impulse happened to land on, it was the only streaming platform on which it could reach its full potential. “YouTube is nothing but indie filmmakers,” EP/director Doug Liman explained in a BUILD interview in advance of the first season’s premiere, “and yet it’s also one of the biggest corporations in the world, so it also has the kind of glossy veneer. So what I wanted to do with Impulse, it was tonally perfect for YouTube.” Considering that Season 2 is set to premiere this fall (see teaser trailer above), YouTube clearly agreed. Get yourself that YT Premium subscription, we promise you’ll be just as blown away.
1. Cobra Kai
Created by: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Stars: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove
With 11 award nominations (one Emmy included), the Golden Tomato Award for Best TV Drama, a 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (“making it the highest-reviewed reboot of all time,” per the official YouTube blog) and a reported 20 million views in six days for the Season 2 premiere, you don’t need us to tell you that Cobra Kai is more than worth your time and money. Still: Cobra Kai is more than worth your time and money. Bringing William Zabka and Ralph Macchio back to reignite their 80s-era Karate Kid rivalry just as the various tender/hurting teens in their lives are finding themselves in desperate need of mentorship from an ass-kicking sensei or two, Cobra Kai is a feast of brutal sentimentality, awkward puppy love and heartbreakingly scruffy nostalgia—and, of course, killer karate set pieces.
As Paste’s own Amy Amatangelo put it in her review of the first season, “[Cobra Kai] excels at not allowing anyone to be truly evil or angelic, understanding that human beings are complex and cannot be summed up by a one-line 2 description.” As the sullen goth-makeupped tattoo parlor clerk in a Season 2 episode of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television (a.k.a. the “hilar cop show with serialized elements that’s about to get a third season”—it did not get a third season) says, it’s “literally the only show worth watching on the channel.” Either way, this is the show you’re paying the big bucks to watch, and we can assure you—it’s worth it.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.