Online, nobody knows what's good. There's too much. It's easy to miss something great. Award shows help a bit. This month and next the Streamys will honor established franchises and big budget fare, while the IAWTV Awards will single out some of the same, with a slight indie edge.
The real issue is: at their best, web shows are specific and niche. While I gravitate toward the scrappy, strange and multicultural, and that's certainly not for everyone, but there's no telling what you're looking for.
But I'm always being asked what to watch. With that in mind, here is what you might have missed last year.
If your New Year's resolution is to watch more web series, everything is linked. If you need to start a to-watch list, here's a great start.
You're forgiven for not knowing who Morgan Evans is. The title of his debut show -- "The Untitled Webseries That Morgan Evans Is Doing" -- is a mouthful, not to mention a tad narcissistic.
But the comic writer ("Best Week Ever," "The Onion") created a gem of a series, a fresh cocktail of realist/absurdist humor in bite-size nuggets. Each episode of Untitled Webseries is different. The overall story focuses on Morgan, who spends most of his time hoping to get a development deal at Paramount and wishing his girlfriend Emma would go steady with him. The rest of the show is, well, just a surprise. My favorite episode is "Emma," a Woody Allen throwback starring "Broad City"'s Ilana Glazer.
Honorable Mention: "Chloe and Zoe," for being better than 2 Broke Girls; "It Gets Betterish," for stating the obvious fact that all gays do not like Lady Gaga, or orgies; "Jack in a Box," for being confident enough to be sad; "Jenifer Lewis and Shangela," for Jenifer Lewis, and Shangela; "The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl," for staying consistent and (for Rae) moving on up; "Pretty," for outsmarting pageant reality television; "The Slope," for unlikable lesbians who still intrigue and surprise; "Two Jasperjohns," for making bears surreal; and "The Unwritten Rules," for teaching white people how to talk to black people.
We have a long way to go before people type "http" for drama. Dramas work best with budgets big enough for quality actors and cinematography. Ask a web TV expert and they'd probably name Machinima Prime's massive "Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn" or Hulu's "Booth and the End" as the year's best in web drama.
The web also has plenty of series that practices the "more with less" style of filmmaking. For the best of that, look no further than "The Outs" (check out Indiewire's FUTURES interview with "The Outs" creator Adam Goldman), a drama about Brooklyners, most of them gay, in search of romantic stability. Written and directed by newcomer Adam Goldman, "The Outs" follows the sexual misadventures of exes Mitchell and Jack, whose relationship is beyond repair. Both are lonely and horny, but the show keeps us guessing about whether either of them can find happiness. With a fantastic soundtrack and lush cinematography, "The Outs" is both a guilty pleasure and healthy snack, perfect for a rainy Saturday.
Honorable Mention: "Anyone But Me," for concluding this indelible lesbian soap with class; "Downsized," for remaining one of the few dramas attuned to economic malaise; "I Hate Being Single," for its light, sad touch on male bachelorhood; "Orange Juice in Bishop's Garden," for its unique perspective on queer urban teenhood; and "Squaresville," for proving there's hope for nerd women on screen, post-"Ghost World."
Most mainstream coverage of web TV channels this year focused on Netflix and YouTube, who are putting up hundreds of millions of dollars to fund programs from the likes of Mitch Hurwitz, David Fincher and Chris Hardwick. Lost in that conversation were the many other YouTube networks who have been distributing shows at much lower budgets and occasionally just as well.
Black and Sexy TV stands out in that field as a channel dedicated to expanding black television beyond family sitcoms. An outgrowth of Dennis Dortch's 2008 feature, "A Good Day to be Black and Sexy," Black and Sexy continues the director's interest in intimate romantic comedy and drama. B&S has a slate of programs aimed at viewers who prefer their black comedies more artful and subtle than on-air offerings from Tyler Perry and Akils. This year's breakout hit was The Couple, about a nameless couple who annoy and love each other; in the summer the team raised over $30,000 to create a feature-length spin-off of the show. Last month the network finished airing "Roomieloverfriends," a bubbly comedy from co-producer Issa Rae (Awkward Black Girl).
Honorable Mention: Chill, for giving us more Maria Bamford at an affordable price; My Damn Channel, for producing YouTube's first live show, a crowning achievement for one of the web's sturdiest indie comedy channels; tello, for showing how indie TV can support itself through subscription; YOMYOMF, for disproving the tired assumption that Asian-Americans don't need or want their own programming and doing with style.
I don't normally watch vlogs, despite the fact that the genre is still a star-maker. YouTubers like Phil DeFranco, Tyler Oakley and Michael Buckley are going strong and doing great work.
But if there's ever a video I click, it comes from Jay Smooth's Ill Doctrine. Smooth's political commentary is as smart and biting as it is comforting and light. Teaming up with Animal New York this year, Smooth's vlog was a consistent treat during the election. As American politics gets nuttier, Smooth remains one of the Internet's best BS-callers.
Honorable Mention: "a show with Ze Frank," for bringing back Internet-classic "the show" with greater maturity but the same impulse to innovate.
Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor in the Media, Technology and Society program in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. He researches new media and television, focusing on how producers and organizations create and distribute web series, integrating scholarship on film, television and media industry studies. He is also the editor of Televisual, a blog on web video and television.