Of the seismic cultural shifts that occurred in 2016, Hollywood finally embracing web series may be a tiny victory. But try telling that to the creators (a more succinct term for the writer-director-producer-actors thriving in the medium) who have turned their scrappy little web series into big-budget television deals.
Like Issa Rae, creator of the long-running YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl,” who just received a Golden Globe nomination for her new HBO show, “Insecure,” a vibrant comedy that puts black women front and center.
Or Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the married co-creators who successfully adapted their web series, “High Maintenance,” for HBO. The stoner comedy that raised the bar for online storytelling preserved its indie charm; the six episodes of elegantly-woven vignettes held true to the spirit of the first online episodes, as each revealed little surprises in the lives of believable characters.
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2016 also brought us a most auspicious Cinderella story: “Her Story,” a romantic drama about the loves and lives of two trans women (co-created by Laura Zak and Jen Richards — Richards is trans), was nominated for an Emmy in the first year the Television Academy recognized short form content.
Established stars are also embracing web content, flourishing with the creative freedom afforded by digital production companies thirsty for content. Streaming sites like Crackle and Seeso give top comics carte blanche for their wackiest ideas, and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s New Form Digital seeks out and develops emerging talent. Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” has been a surprising success, garnering three Emmy nominations. It’s probably not enough to get his guests to stop making fun of him for doing a web series, but it’s a start.
All this shaking things up has everyone wondering: Who is the next Issa Rae, and where can I watch the next “High Maintenance”? Is there a niche streaming site making awesome shows by lesbians and black comedians? (Yes). What about experimental web shows by obscure indie filmmakers?
Acknowledging that it would be impossible to watch every single worthwhile web series made in 2016, these are our favorites from this year.
16. “Ladies Room“
This bathroom-set comedy from Mumbai-based Y-films made waves in India for its unconventional portrayal of two “female bros,” Dingo and Khanna, with a high-energy buddy dynamic reminiscent of “Broad City” — if Abby and Ilana spoke Hindi. Through pregnancy scares and narrowly avoiding arrest for smoking pot on a train, Dingo and Khanna’s frantic repartee and clown-like physicality is high farce at its best. It may be subtitled (they use a mix of Hindi and English, called Hinglish), but “Ladies Room” speaks a universal language: Damn funny.
15. “Danny The Manny“
This nearly perfect little web series tells the story of a gay nanny who discovers the little boy he babysits likes to cross-dress. In just five short episodes, writer and director Mike Roma mines his premise for all the humor, sensitivity and campy surrealism it deserves. (Roma’s deft hand is most on display during a playground scene featuring an understated drag queen as a nosy mother from another era.) A contemporary tale with age-old problems, the series explores the nuances of raising children today, and asks how society can best support gender non-conforming children without assuming what that might mean.
14. “Sorry, Ari“
Writer and producer Ari Frenkel brings a cinematic flair to his pithy and fresh comedies. Each self-contained episode delivers from first frame to last, Frenkel’s point of view creating a unified whole. One borrows from silent films: Shot in black and white, Ari frets excessively over a simple cold against a lively original score. The final episode is a single take following Ari through a barbeque as his friends plot his romantic prospects. Frenkel’s dilemmas mostly involve women, but the writing firmly avoids the clichéd misogyny that often accompanies such narratives. We’re not sorry, Ari.
13. “Woke Bae“
Before “Woke Bae,” Phoebe Robinson was known to comedy fans as one half of the “2 Dope Queens” duo, a monthly comedy show and podcast she hosts with former “The Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams. The premise of “Woke Bae” is simple: Robinson and a rotating cast of female comedians discuss the merits of various “hot, famous dudes who affect positive change in the world.” Funny, irreverent, and political, Robinson should have a network deal in no time. As she quips in a clever Upworthy Original, “Have you not seen the president? Literally everyone’s black right now.”
12. “Newborn Moms“
This one almost didn’t qualify for 2016, but luckily ABC just released six new episodes. Created by Second City alums Aurora Browne and Nadine Djoury, “Newborn Moms” is a grown-up comedy for mothers who don’t always act like grown-ups. With Browne as the new age-y Rosie, and Djoury as the type-A Julia, the premise is ripe. (Julia: “I don’t wanna talk about Burning Man.” Rosie: “I don’t wanna talk to you about Burning Man.”) Favorite episode: “The Pick Up,” where the two cheer each other on as they “pick up” other moms for playdates.
This dark comedy is created by “Marcel The Shell’s” Dean Fleischer-Camp and produced by Super Deluxe, leading purveyor of bizarre viral videos. It stars Nathan Fielder (“Nathan For You”) as a recently-fired divorcee, whose psychic tells him that he has a “black stone, like a rock, growing” in his chest. If he doesn’t get rid of it, his body will de-compose in five weeks. Fleishcher-Camp’s trademark is all over the deadpan vocal inflections — consistently neutral across the board — and the retro-looking sets, which are just weird enough to be unsettling without going over the top. With an eerie score reminiscent of “Twin Peaks” and Fielder’s vacant hangdog eyes, “David” takes cringe-comedy to another level.
10. “Jay & Pluto“
As Matthew Fifer (co-creator, with Shane Kidd) told IndieWire of filming this abstract dark comedy about suicide and child abuse, “it felt like Cassavetes was standing behind me the whole way, combing my hair.” Though “Jay & Pluto” feels more like a string of experimental short films than a web series, that is precisely what makes it so captivating. Contemplative voiceover cut with jovial park bench chats between the likes of Richard Kind, Billy Magnussen, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and even a brief appearance by Tony Danza make “Jay & Pluto” one of a kind. To paraphrase Fifer, only in New York could a web series get away with it.
9. “Her Story“
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After its historic Emmy nomination, “Her Story” also won a Gotham Independent Film Award for breakthrough short form series. At its heart, “Her Story” is a lush romance about three women (two of them trans) reckoning with the constantly moving target of gender and sexual identity. Co-creators, producers, and stars Jen Richards and Laura Zak play the would-be lovers with probing eyes and enticing smiles. Seeing their romance unfold is like watching someone open a present while trying to save the wrapping paper: You have to admire their delicacy, but you wish they’d just do it already.
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Move over, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and make room for science’s most scientific new voice: Ted Rimmarniet. He may think Albert Galileo invented gravity, but by the courage of his convictions and the cut of his turtle neck, he may have you doubting — if only for a split second – everything you vaguely remember from your eighth grade science class. Rimmarniet is the alter ego of comedian Demetri Martin and the host of “Our Fascinating Planet,” a short series produced by Funny or Die. Borrowing liberally from the tradition of “Nova” and “Cosmos,” Martin applies his incisive absurdism to the planet’s great mysteries, taking liberties with celestial truths in the name of that other divine entity: Comedy.
7. “The Movement“
Mic senior correspondent Darnell Moore’s short documentary series packs a lot of information into digestible 10-minute segments. Each episode of the Gotham-nominated series highlights a positive story about marginalized communities, usually those not covered by mainstream media. From an organization supporting family members of those in the criminal justice system, to one that’s helping low-income women of color develop food businesses, each subject of “The Movement” tackles both educates and inspires. It’s a great example of how to use this dynamic medium to show the humanity behind what would otherwise be just another news story.
If you’ve ever wondered what unlucky soul is behind those disgruntled and long-winded Yelp reviews, “Amazon Reviews: The Musical!” is sure to amuse. And if reading anonymous complaints about useless junk is one of the internet’s simplest pleasures, then this web series is its greatest gift. Setting the text of real Amazon reviews to song and dance, creator Lauren Maul has created a singing telegram to consumers disappointed with their tiny pianos, or Jason Priestley’s memoir. By choosing reviews with personal details and emotional pleas, Maul elevates “Amazon Reviews: The Musical!” beyond its brilliant premise, adding a touch of heart.
5. “Joanne The Scammer“
The rare social media star whose popularity is not entirely baffling, Joanne The Scammer is the alter ego of comedian Branden Miller, who honed his iconic con artist character on Vine, Instagram, and Twitter. This year, he teamed up with Super Deluxe to take Joanne to the next level, waltzing into Beverly Hills homes and luxury stores in his blonde wig and full beard, only stopping to tell a security guard: “Excuse me, I’m on the phone with Kirstie Alley, if that means anything in this town anymore.” For the camp-loving cinephile, Super Deluxe just released a “Thelma and Louise” parody starring Joanne and collaborator Khadi Don. Here’s hoping Joanne The Scammer never gets caught.
4. “Take My Wife“
While calling this 22-minute Seeso sitcom a “web series” may be a stretch, its charm-filled six episodes qualify “Take My Wife” for all the accolades. Stand-up comedians and real-life married lesbians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher play fictionalized versions of themselves as they navigate the joys and pitfalls of a career in comedy. Much like in their stand-up, Butcher and Esposito are not afraid to forego a few laughs in the pursuit of the profound; these proud feminists even tackle the pervasive “rape joke” with a light touch that still packs a punch. Unsurprisingly, Seeso just announced it has picked up “Take My Wife” for a second season, putting the streaming service a cut (or a side mullet) above the rest.
No end of year list is complete without a curveball, and this improvised web series throws the curviest of balls. The Brooklyn-based comedy troupe consists of filmmakers Shaina Feinberg and Chris Manley (“The Babymooners”), Chris Roberti (“High Maintenance”), and train-hopping clown Jeff Seal, with some help from comedian Maeve Higgins. In tiny vignettes bearing no discernible through-line, these seasoned improvisers create surreal mini scenes out of bodegas and stumps. Capping each one off with a rousing Vaudevillian theme song, “New York, Am I Right” is what would happen if John Cassavetes and Woody Allen made a web series.
Even if you couldn’t care less about antique cars, Jerry Seinfeld’s obsession is a little contagious. He earnestly matches each car to his guest’s personalities, adding a silly structure and pretty visuals to the Emmy-nominated interview series. Stand-up comedy is almost universally acknowledged as the most difficult path in show business, and Seinfeld’s subjects have seen it all. Whether it’s because of his interview skills or his legendary status, Seinfeld’s guests open up about life on the road, crushing defeats, childhood tragedy, and why they put up with it all. The banter feels polished but real, the intimate moments practiced yet vulnerable. This season’s standout guests were Margaret Cho, J.B. Smoove, and Judd Apatow, but you’ll be knocking back episodes like you would a great cup of coffee.
In this Gotham-nominated series, creator Brian Jordan Alvarez uses the traditional sitcom as a foundation to imagine a world a few marbles short of reality — one where gender, sexuality and even time is as fluid as a mindfulness practice on the beaches of Santa Monica. The characters speak at a breakneck pace, with eyes slightly crazed and voices raised a hair above natural. Dates are walks, siblings are different races, gender is whatever, and sexual preference is something to be tried on like a fabulous hat. Alvarez achieves what all storytellers should attempt at least once — to bring fantasy to life. “It’s a little bit of a magic trick,” Alvarez told IndieWire, and we agree.
In case you missed it: “The Show About The Show“
When IndieWire’s Eric Kohn listed “The Show About The Show” as one of his top ten shows of 2015, filmmaker Caveh Zahedi put Kohn in his meta series, where each episode is about the making of the last one. It premiered in 2015, with two new episodes in 2016, but deserves re-visiting. Narrating his experience with a motley crew of Brooklyn actors and filmmakers, Zahedi is a boyishly mischievous presence onscreen. Like an indie Larry David, there is no end to the humble pie he will eat in pursuit of great filmmaking. The result is a delightful peak behind the curtain, an absurdist love letter to the act of creation, and a very good show about a show.