Twenty years ago if you were a creative storyteller with a passion for the moving image, the path was clear: max out your credit card, shoot an indie movie, take it to festivals and hope that someone—anyone—picked it up for distribution. It wasn’t easy, but the precedent had at least been set and the steps were clear enough. But then (cue dramatic music) the internet came, and suddenly there were nearly as many avenues for expression and exhibition as there were actual filmmakers.
Practically overnight the possibilities seemed limitless, and gradually a new cinematic form began to emerge online: the web series, which basically included everything from miniature sitcoms, to sketch comedy, to video essays, experimental film, documentary shorts, pop culture commentary and much, much more. Truthfully, “web series” doesn’t describe a single genre or medium as much as it describes an entire technology.
And much like television a half century earlier, short-form web-only content has only slowly begun to receive the proper attention and accolades. But luckily that’s changing. Now it’s not unusual at all for shows developed on the web to regularly make the jump to traditional media (Broad City, Portlandia and Drunk History), play at major film festivals or be celebrated at annual events like Anaheim’s VidCon.
For this week’s Must-List, we asked Film Independent staffers to tell us what online content makes them laugh, think, like, click and share—from movie reviews, to vlog journals, to bite-sized comedies that prove length isn’t nearly as important as creativity and execution. So here’s what you should watch online:
Half in the Bag (2011-present)
There’s no show on the internet quite like Red Letter Media’s Half in the Bag. Part Siskel and Ebert, part sitcom pastiche, each episode of Bag features series creators Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman as a pair of lazy, mostly idle VCR repairman whose conversations inevitably revolve around whichever major film release is currently in theaters as well as any online controversies said film has provoked within the online film geek community. The deliberately shabby sets and knowingly clunky one-liners recall the multi-cam comedies of the 1970s and ‘80s and the humor is stupid-smart in a way not seen in pop culture commentary since the heyday of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head. But what really makes Bag special is the depth and sophistication of the criticism on display, which takes gleeful aim at a parity of subjects, from half-baked indies like Jeff Who Lives at Home to cynical studio comedies like Jack and Jill. Mike and Jay’s insights are well reasoned and refreshingly sane in a low-key Midwestern way (Red Letter Media is based in Milwaukee). Stoklasa is also the creator of the popular Mr. Plinkett series of Star Wars prequel reviews, which are equally great.
-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
The Impossibilities (2015)
The Impossibilities is a comedic web series that follows the misadventures and unlikely friendship between Willa (Kati Rediger), a daffy lesbian yogi, and Harry (Ashley Springer), a jaded children’s party magician in New York. Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan and starring Kati Rediger and Ashley Springer, the show has played at the LA Film Festival, Raindance, the Melbourne Web Festival and many others. It’s also been featured on The Huffington Post, AfterEllen, Indiewire, The Daily Dot, Decider and Tubefilter, and was nominated for a 2015 Gotham Award. The show was a Vimeo Staff Pick, and has been licensed by Canal + for distribution in Europe. Plans for a second season are in the works.
-Jennifer Kushner, Director of Artist Development
Los Angeles, The City in Cinema (2014-2016, Colin Marshall)
If you’ve ever seen film academic Thom Andersen’s three-hour documentary masterpiece Los Angeles Plays Itself, then you already have a pretty good idea what The City in Cinema is all about. Like Plays, Colin Marshall’s series of video essays (all around 10 minutes) explores how L.A. is depicted in film, and what these depictions say about our own relationship to history and civic identity. Episodes center on individual films (including obscure titles such as Night of the Comet and Miracle Mile), as well as specific locations, like downtown’s Bonnaventure Hotel. But Marshall—a writer and podcaster now based in South Korea—isn’t just copying what Andersen has already done. He’s building on it, using film to take us into new and unlikely parts of the city and its fascinating (if not always for the right reasons) history. Whether you’re a resident of the City of Angels or not, all you need to appreciate The City in Cinema is a desire to understand how reality is reproduced and reinvented on screen. Colin seems to be done with the series for now, but if he ever decides to pick it back up I’ve got about 5,000 ideas for new episodes. (Matt Warren)
It’s Grace, Drunk Kitchen, You Deserve a Drink (circa 2014-present)
What’s better than one rad lady? Three rad ladies. We were asked to talk about our favorite web series, but I can’t pick just one. I find myself falling down the rabbit hole on YouTube, constantly jumping between It’s Grace (Grace Helbig), My Drunk Kitchen (Hannah Hart) and You Deserve a Drink (Mamrie Hart). These series entertain you hour after hour, but the shows themselves are just the beginning of what these talented ladies are capable of. Between the three of them, they’ve created multiple TV shows, books and films, including 2014’s Camp Takota. Taken together, their videos perfect mix of business, booze and entertainment. I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with next—particularly in their new movie Dirty 30, which comes out this September.
-Lex McNaughton, Film Education Coordinator
Wainy Days (2007-2012)
Way back in the ‘90s, one of my absolute favorite things in the world was MTV’s sketch show The State. The show’s cast featured an impressive who’s-who of future comedy bigwigs, including Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and—most crucially—David Wain. The subsequent release of Wain’s 2001 summer camp parody Wet Hot American Summer remains a landmark moment for both comedy and independent film, filtering Wain’s absurd sense of humor through the familiar tropes of 1980s “snobs vs. slobs” comedies. But Wain’s cracked approach to comedic storytelling is on even purer display in the My Damn Channel original series Wainy Days, a deeply weird show following a fictionalized David Wain’s dating misadventures in a bizarro-world (and frankly psychotic) version of New York City. The results are unexpected, hilarious and definitely not for the faint of heart, featuring guest appearances by everyone from Paul Rudd, to Elizabeth Banks, to Nick Offerman. Part Seinfeld, part Louie, Wainy Days is web content at its most compelling and irreverent. (Matt Warren)
So as you can see, there’s not much these five series have in common other than their ability to condense great ideas into highly digestible chunks of short-form content, available on-demand for the busy media consumer on the go.