We watched plenty of web series in 2014, ranging from long-form, TV-esque series from the likes of Amazon and Netflix to super-short serials made by independent creators on YouTube. Of course, some stood out more than others, and, unlike last year, we decided to feature the short and the long together on one list — because size doesn’t matter, as long as the show is good.
The following series made our list because of their high production values, inventive plots, stellar on- and off-camera talent, and the important issues they explore. In addition to each being great shows on their own, together they show the versatility and range the web can offer video creators and viewers, something that’s not as easily found on TV.
“Transparent” — Amazon
Amazon truly outdid itself with “Transparent.” Created by Jill Soloway, whose credits include top-notch series like “Six Feet Under” and “United States of Tara,” and starring Jeffrey Tambor, this show delves into the lives and psyches of family members who find out their paternal figure (Tambor) identifies as a transgender woman. Ignore the fact that the type of characters depicted by “Transparent” are not found anywhere else on TV; what makes the show even more remarkable is how it pulls you into the lives of the Pfefferman clan, and makes you love and hate them like anyone within your own, real-life, dysfunctional family. “Transparent” is at once a specific family drama, and a universal family drama, and considering its subject matter, the show explores themes of sexuality and gender identity in rich ways, without ever hitting you in the face with it.
“Orange Is the New Black” (Season 2) — Netflix
The highly anticipated second season of one of Netflix’s biggest original series (the multiple Emmy and PGA Awards nominations say it all) brought the streaming service some of its most concentrated binge-watching to date. Going deeper into the lives of under-explored characters from season one (namely, all the inmates outside of Piper and Alex), this season of “Orange Is the New Black” makes the list for exceeding expectations and providing a unique view into the women’s prison system in the US. And like “Transparent,” it doesn’t hurt that the show explores characters and themes that most of TV is still afraid to approach.
“High Maintenance” — Vimeo
“High Maintenance” was a landmark show in 2014 in the sense that it became Vimeo’s first original programming commitment, when the online video service commissioned six new episodes of the NYC-set comedy series from husband-wife duo Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld. Vimeo’s faith in the show was deserved, as the new episodes created by Sinclair and Blichfeld continued the series stellar track record in introducing and exploring the unique characters and relationships often found in New York.
“Video Game High School” (Season 3) — Collective Digital Studio & Rocket Jump Studios
“Video Game High School” marks a true digital phenomenon. Freddie Wong and Matt Arnold have managed to complete three seasons of a show with action sequences and special effects worthy of theater-gracing films, let alone traditional TV. Wong and Arnold deserve serious recognition for this, especially considering the limited nature of their budgets when compared to most TV and feature film projects. That said, “VGHS” isn’t on this list because its production story is impressive; the show is also entertaining. Jimmy Wong has been a stand-out across all three seasons of the show, and recurring roles by many in the YouTube community, including the always-welcome Harley Morenstein, give the show a great sense of its own humor.
“Frankenstein, MD” — Pemberley Digital & PBS Digital
This PBS transmedia project from Pemberley Digital follows Victoria Frankenstein, an aspiring doctor aiming to get ahead in a field largely dominated by men. We loved “Frankenstein, MD,” not only because it was the latest evolution of a web-only format tested and popularized by “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Emma Approved,” but because the show centered on a smart, driven, female character, which, frankly, there need to be more of. Plus, all of the goth/horror elements, and nods to one of the greatest stories ever written, aren’t bad, either.
“Bee & PuppyCat” — Cartoon Hangover/Channel Frederator
Created by cartoonist Natasha Allegri, “Bee & PuppyCat” gained notable popularity after debuting as a two-part story on Cartoon Hangover in the summer of 2013. Since then, fans have been waiting for more of the animated adventure starring a 20-something-year-old woman lacking in employment and her companion, a foreign creature that resembles both a puppy and a cat. They were rewarded earlier this year, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and the support of Frederator Studios. New episodes of “Bee & PuppyCat” will debut through 2015, and by the looks of the first few, they will be as stellar as the two-part pilot.
“Brothers” — Emmett Lundberg & Sheyam Ghieth
This important web series finally got its long hoped-for crowdfunding — enough to make seven episodes (thus far) showcasing the lives of four, transgender men living in Brooklyn. Can you think of a single series, web or not, that focuses exclusively on the daily goings-on of transgender men? Me neither, and the web seems like a perfect place for “Brothers” to flourish. Watching this show will teach you so much about not just being a trans man, but about being any kind of human coping with your particular existence.
“Becoming Belle Knox” — The Scene (Condé Nast Entertainment)
This documentary series follows Miriam Weeks, a student at Duke University. When the world discovered Weeks’s double life as Belle Knox, an actor in adult entertainment films, it spawned a multitude of news stories (even winding up as the subject of a “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” episode) and had repercussions in her life as a student. The Scene’s “Belle Knox” gives Weeks a voice to narrate her story, which can so often be vulnerable to how others choose to tell it.
“Deadbeat” — Hulu
A long-form web series that’s shot with the looseness of something that’s more short-form, “Deadbeat” follows Kevin Pacalioglu (played by Tyler Labine), a slacker who’s also a medium. The show stands out for its writing and Labine’s acting, even though the visuals might not be on par with what you see on TV or even Netflix and Amazon. That’s part of what makes the show so good, though — the scripts are incredibly funny, the cast is on point, and really that’s all you need to get people to laugh. There’s also no shortage of shows where a loser lead character is imbued with a great gift, and this is the digital’s best answer to that genre. It might be also the best show of that kind.
“Gayle” — Chris Fleming
Chris Fleming is a comedic mastermind, not just for his portrayal of “Gayle,” a wealthy, super-suburban mom who goes all out in everything she does, from movie-watching to SAT tutor-kidnapping, but also for his approach to performing. In addition to the hilarious web series “Gayle,” Fleming takes his show on the road, holding stand-up shows all over the country as his token character. Though the commentary “Gayle” makes will be best understood by people who grew up in Northeastern US suburbia, the creator’s method of mocking elitist/suburban culture can be appreciated by all…because it’s so insanely hilarious. Fleming also gets props for making low budget work, mainly by shooting in and using actors from his hometown (like his parents and their neighbors).
For other best-of-2014 lists, as well as profiles of the creators, networks, and stories that dominated the online-video news cycle in 2014, check out the rest of our 2014 “VideoInk Entertainers of the Year” special issue.
This post has been updated to include proper credits for “Frankenstein, MD,” which was produced by Pemberley Digital for PBS Digital Studios.