"Web series" have matured over the past ten years: Netflix and Amazon have made billions from users paying for access to large databases – movies and TV for Netflix, almost everything for Amazon. They took advantage of the internet’s vast capacity for information. Then they invested in original programming to keep users paying. It’s paying off. Netflix is now synonymous with high quality web TV – Amazon is getting there with "Transparent," "Mozart in the Jungle" and a promising roster of upcoming shows – putting them at the center of the mainstream debates over net neutrality.
And web networks relying on advertising – YouTube, Yahoo, Hulu, Aol – have had some (though less) success. Collective Digital Studio and Freddie Wong’s brand- and crowd-financed franchise "Video Game High School" has been a marketing coup for YouTube. Multichannel networks are investing in higher budget scripted series — like Maker’s "Oh You Pretty Things" and Rooster Teeth’s (now Fullscreen’s) massive franchise "RWBY." A growing list of YouTubers are signing development deals, getting series orders, even premiering new series: Benny and Rafi Fine, Shane Dawson, Grace Helbig and Smosh have been working diligently for years in a competitive market and deserve their wins.
Smaller indies are having a tougher time. To quote Hank Green: You can’t make it on YouTube anymore, at least not alone. Lost in the media’s excitement over bigger budget web TV shows are the indie networks, series and creative producers who innovate with vastly fewer resources. In rare cases such as "High Maintenance," indies can compete with bigger outfits in production value. But realistically, well-written or well-acted stories often lack the technical polish or sophisticated branding of series we’ve been trained to recognize as "television."
But by my standards, indies are innovating as much if not more than networks who work with produces with Hollywood cred. Even when I limit my sample to sitcoms, dramas and dramedies, independent stories are more diverse, sincere and idiosyncratic than corporate television, even if many, many times less expensive.
It’s a shame mainstream journalists and critics continue to undercover the indie market. Indie producers will be most affected by changes in how we regulate the Internet. Whether they succeed will show whether the web can still democratize media production, whether we truly will see more stories, from a range of identities and across a range of genres, styles and locales. This year we saw the Writers Guild West, including member Jay Bushman ("The Lizzie Bennett Diaries"), filing pro-reclassification comments with the FCC and Issa Rae (Color Creative, "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl") taking meetings with commissioners.
Indie TV is smaller and scrappier than the slick TV we’ve grown used to, but the best of them have heart, wit and courage. Here are a few – but not nearly all – the stand-outs from 2014 that are worth just a few minutes of your time.
5 Networks of the Year
Vimeo confidently straddles the line between indie and corporate interests in web TV. Anyone can upload to the site, but it’s managed by smart curators working out of a Frank Genry building on the Manhattan’s west side. Vimeo deserves recognition not just for providing filmmakers with a solid ad-free alternative to YouTube but also for its original programming efforts, particularly for developing "High Maintenance" for its new On Demand platform.
"High Maintenance" is by far the most sophisticated web original series of the past few years. Happily for co-creators Ben Sinclair, its star, and Katja Blichfeld, an Emmy Award-winning casting director, Vimeo gave the team a business model where they could retain creative control and profit directly from sales (after the network recoups its investment).
As an anthology series, where every episode stars a different character and has a different length, "High Maintenance" takes full advantage of the web’s flexibility. The new season, the first half available for purchase, features more diversity in race, sexuality and age and feels more expansive than the series’ ingenuous first batches of episodes. The acting remains top notch but with Vimeo’s investment characters now have more spaces and contexts in which to act.
Unlike YouTube, which has focused on developing corporate partners, Vimeo is actively curating new storytellers on their site, from the film festival circuit and even from YouTubers. Like Netflix and Amazon, and start-ups like Vessel and VHX, it is forgoing advertisers and betting users will pay for indie TV and film directly. "High Maintenance" perfectly demonstrates this model: It’s a series of loosely connected short films you can watch or buy individually or as a package.
Vimeo is far from the only indie network experimenting with business models…
Black and Sexy TV – Founding producers Dennis Dortch, Numa Perrier and Jeanine Daniels released new episodes of their realist, romantic dramedies "Hello Cupid," "Roomieloverfriends" and "That Guy." The network has had success partnering with VHX.tv to sell individual episodes of the shows, and earlier this year Spike Lee signed on to executive produce Dortch and Perrier’s "The Couple" for development with HBO. The team plans to release a number of new series in 2015.
Color Creative – If 2015 sees the arrival of a long-awaited black TV renaissance, Issa Rae and Deniese Davis’ Color Creative network will hopefully play a part. Following her own HBO development deal with Larry Willmore, Rae released three, strong independent pilots this fall. Piloting is always a gamble, one even corporate networks routinely lose, but Rae’s offerings – Brittani Nichols’ lesbian comedy "Words With Girls," Shawn Boxe’s darkly comedic procedural "Bleach," and stoner comedy "So Jaded" – show promise. Rae is asking fans to petition networks for development deals, while working behind the scenes to get them sold; she’s also developing a slate of dramas. It’s a big gambit, but borne out of Rae’s frustration with traditional network development, of which she’s a veteran (previously, Shonda Rhimes brought her show "I Hate LA Dudes" to ABC). At the same time, she is still releasing short-format shows, like "First," on her channel and asking fans to contribute donations to keep the enterprise going.
Tello – After partnering with One More Lesbian, lesbian-focused network tello has been releasing series consistently, including two confident comedies "Rent Controlled" and "Hashtag." The network is living proof that a small number of subscribers can support small-scale independent production.
Thundershorts – Indiewire’s own site for short-form comedy features a solid premiere line-up worth a look. Michael Showalter’s show about a father obsessed with maintaining his family’s viral standing largely delivers on its conceptual promise. Lee August Praley’s one-man web series "Augie Alone" is genuinely original and ambitious; Praley is currently releasing a web series for the holidays, "Viral Christmas," marked by a similar whimsy and melancholy.
10 Series of the Year
The best web series give fans stories they never or rarely see on cable TV. Whether mixing genres or identities, indie series are at their most original when they provide screen time and work to characters and artists on the edges of marketability.
Ingrid Jungermann’s "F to 7th," in my view, best accomplished this task in 2014, by showing the depth of talent among an under-employed class of actors – straight, gay and queer middle-aged women – and by carefully toeing the line between dark comedy and drama.
As I wrote this summer, "F to 7th" comes closer to an indie response to FX’s "Louie" than any series this year, perhaps ever. Shot in Brooklyn with a stellar cast of supporting female actors, the second season of Jungermann’s comedy about a middle-aged lesbian searching for her gender identity builds on an already impressive first season. Funded by a NYU/Spike Lee production grant, it featured higher production value for established (Olympia Dukakis, Jeanine Garafalo) and emerging (Stewart Thorndike) female actors. This year the Writers Guild honored it alongside "High Maintenance" and "Vicky and Lysander" for outstanding writing for short-form new media.
"The Actress": The third season of indie darling Ann Carr’s series brought the dark comedy to new levels and technical and emotional sophistication. Directed and photographed by Tim Bierbaum ("Broad City") – whose "Tiny Town" was one of Above Average’s most idiosyncratic and beautifully shot shows this year – the season featured Carr’s protagonist reaching new levels of humiliation and despair. Few series, save "The Comeback," so piquantly portray the emotional turmoil female actors routinely endure.
"Be Here Nowish": Most of the best indie series come out of New York – mirroring film’s LA/NYC divide – but co-creators and stars Alexandra Roxo and Natalia Leite’s ambitious debut takes viewers from the east to west coast in search of spiritual fulfillment. Queer and hip, the show follows two friends disenchanted enough with New York to head to sunny Los Angeles, fishes leaping out of the water. The series is as pretty as it is distinct, and I’m confident the duo’s upcoming feature will not disappoint.
"Brothers": The first season of Emmett Lundberg’s Brooklyn-set drama followed stories I have never seen in scripted cable television: transmen exploring and struggling through gender, sexuality and friendship. While some of its topics may not surprise trans people and their allies, the series deserves credit for developing characters and pacing its narrative appropriately while addressing the economic and social issues affecting many transmen, from top surgery to access to hormone therapy. The series joins 2013’s "No Shade" and upcoming "The Switch" in ensuring that indie and web TV producers will continue to lead trans representation.
"Eat Our Feelings": In the past few years female comedy duos have risen to prominence – see the stellar work of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer ("Broad City"), Alexandra Fiber and Danielle Gibson ("Srsly"), Katie Hartman and Leah Rudick ("Made to Order"), Lindsay Hicks and Amy Jackson Lewis ("The Better Half"), to name a few. Emma Jane Gonzalez and Sasha Winters, in just two episodes this year, took the trend to a whole new level by integrating a Brooklyn-set sitcom with a vegan-friendly cooking show. With their original, easy-to-prepare recipes and biting skits on single womanhood, Gonzalez and Winters have catapulted to the top of a crowded field of innovative indie cooking shows – see Seth Brundle and Leslie Robinson’s Issa Rae-produced "Butter and Brown," performance artist Kiam Junio’s vegan series "Filipino Fusions," sitcom/instruction hybrid "My Life in Sourdough," and, sitting atop the massive drag queen cooking show subgenre, Feast of Fun’s "Cooking With Drag Queens."
"Little Horribles": Amy Rubin’s Streamy Awards "best indie series" winner has earned praise for its empathic portrayal of a misanthropic LA lesbian. The first season demonstrated impressive range: Rubin covers workplace humor, romance, LA hipsterdom and performs in a genius bit about PDA, all while collaborating with a number of the indie creators featured on this list (Ilana Glazer, Issa Rae, Ann Carr, Ingrid Jungermann, along with talents like "Pursuit of Sexiness’" Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata and "30 Rock’s" Sue Galloway). Look out for season two!
"Modern Day Black Gay": Every year brings new black gay male-led series online, and each is different: this year’s "GAYS" delivered stellar production value whereas "No Shade" featured dance and a diversity of gender expressions. "Modern Day Black Gay" ranks just a hair above the rest for its sharp, culturally aware writing – it is, for example, perhaps the only black series I’ve seen to call out gay male position politics as heteronormative. Each episode is cannily framed around common questions in the community, meaning that even though it’s not the most popular black gay show online it has a strong comment culture. Here’s hoping creator Donja Love has more scripts on his hard drive.
"Rods and Cones": Beth Lisick and Tara Jepsen’s comedy about two oddly coupled artist duos is one of 2014’s smartest and most under-appreciated comedies. Released on Rebecca Odes and "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway’s feminist network Wifey, "Rods and Cones" follows a pair of young performance artists played by real performance artists Jibz Cameron (Dynasty Handbag) and Erin Markey as they seek mentorship from convivial comedians Carole and Mitzi, played by the creators. The show is everything indie TV should be: experimental yet accessible, queer yet inviting.
"Uninspired": "Uninspired" was a stand-out at last year’s New York Television Festival and creator Becky Yamamoto released it in the early part of the year. Yamamoto’s take on coming into adulthood embraces the pleasures and pains of social and romantic life in New York. She is a writer and actor to watch, and I’m not the only one: the series has been praised by "The AV Club," "Glamour" and "Splitsider." Meanwhile, Yamamoto has been an active participant in the city’s scene of early career comedians and appears in a number of other series.
"Vicky & Lysander": "Vicky and Lysander" scored two WGA nominations this year (more than "High Maintenance" and "F to 7th") for the second season of their comedy about two obnoxious social climbers. Season 1, which aired on LogoTV.com, was professional and well-written, but the second season exceeded their standards, featuring action sequences alongside their trademark banter-filled dinner parties. Many web series have attempted to be the heir to "Will & Grace" – see this year’s delightful buddy comedy "Tough Love" – but "Vicky & Lysander" comes closer than any I’ve seen.
10 Creatives of the Year
The low costs of short-form indie series allow creators more control over their products. As often as I see strong series from writers I notice performers, producers and personalities who bring a unique style or voice to whatever they put out.
This year no writer-producer deserves more praise than Bernie Su, who with Hank Green (of the Vlogbrothers) and Pemberley Digital, have successfully co-created a new media genre: the vlog adaptation. Pemberley has released five adaptations of works in the public domain – "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries" (based on "Pride and Prejudice"), "Welcome to Sanditon" (based on "Sanditon"), "Emma Approved" (based on "Emma"), "Frankenstein MD" (based on "Frankenstein") and "The March Family Letters" (based on "Little Women"). The series use the simplicity of the vlog storytelling method to build robust transmedia operations, where fans can participate in the series and follow the story across social media platforms and companion web series. The format has proven so successful it’s already been replicated with "The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy" (adapted from JM Barrie’s "Peter and Wendy") and "The Goreys." Almost a decade from the premeire of "lonelygirl15," Pemberley has proven vlogging is still ripe for innovation, and PBS Digital Studios has now co-signed on the idea.
Certainly much of Pemberley’s success results from Green’s built-in audience, fan bases for Jane Austen, and solid casting for the leads. But Su’s writing for "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries," their first hit, is no doubt foundational to proving the viability of this mode of production. Su is a veteran web series creator and writer and something akin to a guru in writing for the web. Su’s series are comfortably paced, giving actors room to get into character while keeping the plot moving forward for audiences.
But Su is never limits himself to writing scripts, having co-written (with Kate Rorick) a book companion for "The Lizzie Bennett Diaries," and worked with brands to integrate products into existing series and possibly create more brand initiatives. The latter strategy is critical, as web series have yet to lure significant brand interest away from linear television, despite declining ratings and persistent skepticism about the value of the traditional 30-second spot.
Fawzia Mirza: A prolific working actor and comedian, Mirza spends as much of her time as a headlining theater actor in Chicago as she does releasing original web series. This year she and creative partner Ryan Logan released the second season of their comedy "Kam Kardashian," which imagines a world with a long-lost lesbian Kardashian sister. The series is a bright satire of society’s expectations for gays to be "normal," and showcases a number of rising talents, from Logan to Mirza’s co-stars Mary Hollis Inboden and Joel Kim Booster. Later this year Mirza released a shorter series, "Brown Girl Problems," further exploring South Asian identity. Mirza carries everything she’s in. She’s a magnetic, one-of-a-kind talent.
Willam Belli: Willam lost his season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race" but he’s continued to build a fan base online, becoming one of the most web savvy drag queens from the competition. Fans love his "LA blonde" personae, which he put to use in two web series this year, video clip show "The Beatdown" ("Tosh.0" in fabulous drag) and makeup show "Paint Me Bitch." His music videos are fun and catchy – his hit "Boy Is A Bottom" was recently remixed in Spanish). Willam’s wit and irreverence is perfect for YouTube, where he’s amassed a respectable 350,000 followers, which has helped him land bigger deals with brands.
Kate Berlant and John Early: Known online as "Bejohnce," comedy duo Berlant and Early have a unique voice as knowing as it is unpredictable. Their chemistry shines through in every video – you can tell they’ve been working together for years – and every new video they release is completely different from the last. Spend a few moments on their channel and find yourself lost in their crazy, but welcoming, world.
Drew Droege: Droege is a scene-stealing talent. I’ve ever seen him underperform in any series. Best known for his "Chloe" series – a brilliant spoof on Chloe Sevigny and New York trendsetters – Droege has proven he’s smart enough to execute highbrow comedy. But he’s not above lending his talents to the growing market for gay male web series, and he shines in all of them – "Where The Bears Are," "Go-Go Boy Interrupted" and "Not Looking," along with telenovela spoof "Stallions De Amor. "He carried one of 2014’s best web series about the entertainment industry (there are a lot), "Hollywood Acting Studio." With frequent collaborator Jim Hansen (The Orphans) he was integral to one of the most interesting new shows this year, "Paragon School for Girls," a surreal send-up of boarding school starring men in drag.
Casey Jane Ellison: Casey has refined her character as an almost-knowing "art bitch," as she says in the web series she hosted for Ovation this year, "Touching the Art." Ellison brought irony and humor to "Touching the Art," which featured interviews from art world power-players and scholars. She is best known for her hilarious series for VFiles, "Status Update," which found a cult following. Last year she scored another win with VFiles in "What the F*shion?" This year she also furthered her career as a video artist, curating a series of short animation films for MoMA PS1 featuring Jacolby Satterwhite, Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin (with Rhett LaRue).
Cecile Emeke: Emeke’s eye for color and composition put her on the radar of black film and arts aficionados this year — her docu-series "Strolling" features on-street interviews with young black Brits and has all the ease, style and openness you want from such a show. She’s shown her versatility by also producing shorts showcasing poetry and spoken word, including the lovely series "Running" and short film "fake deep," where poets deconstruct feminism for conscious men. Emeke is currently raising funds for a web series "Ackee and Saltfish," which takes a narrative approach to showcasing the minds of two young British women of the African diaspora.
Eliot Glazer: Eliot, brother of Ilana, has been consistently producing ingenuous but accessible comedy for years. In the past he delivered a series for Above Average, "Eliot’s Sketchpad," and his own comedy about normal gays co-created with Brent Sullivan, "It Gets Betterish." This year he got traction online with "haunting renditions," where he sings eerie adaptations of pop songs; he’s now touring with "Haunting Renditions."
Aphrodite Kocięda (Aph Ko): Each year I long for indie series that explicitly address cultural politics, and newcomer Aph Ko delivered two shows this year to answer my prayers. First she released "Tales from Kraka Tower," a satire of diversity in higher education, then "Black Feminist Blogger," which chronicles invisible labor. With very few resources, Ko is leading a campaign to make indie TV political and unafraid, and I hope her work woos more collaborators to join her mission.
Amanda Seales: Amanda is probably best known for her commentary on a viral catcalling video on CNN, where her takedown (of an admittedly easy target) itself got some traction in social media. But more people should know her for her show, "Things I Learned This Week," where she serves real talk on news and pop culture while also performing as different characters in sketches. The series was picked up by a new indie network, Kollide TV, started by a former BET programming executive, Lateef Sarnor, who brought BET.com their first web series in Tatyana Ali’s "Buppies" by signing P&G as a sponsor ("Buppies" star Robin Thede is now head writer on Larry Wilmore’s "Nightly Show"). Here’s hoping for a bigger 2015 for the sharp comedienne.