The Best Online-Original TV Shows 2014
"Burning Love" on Yahoo Screen With some online shows now at the level of quality and intricacy as Netflix's "House of Cards," the genre of Web video has forever changed. More shows are coming not only from obvious competitors Amazon and Hulu, but also from upstart Crackle and unlikely tech giants AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo. With so many players rolling out their own original content, it becomes overwhelming for the casual viewer to keep track of everything and separate the good stuff from the video that isn’t worth your time.
We're here to help with the best picks from the current crop of online originals. From short vignettes with smart animations to full-length TV production-level episodes, online programming is evolving and becoming full of the same variety that television has to offer the discerning viewer. Here are our top picks.
Amazon Prime ($99/year)
Garry Trudeau's political satire, which stars John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos, follows the bumbling lives of four U.S. Republican senators sharing a rented home in Washington, D.C. The series was inspired by real-life Rep. George Miller and senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin. Schumer and other politicians have made cameo appearances as themselves on the show. Guest stars, including sardonic celebrities Wanda Sykes and Bill Murray, add to the scandalous hijinks.
The first season of "Alpha House" has 11 episodes, and it has been renewed for a second season.
AOL Originals (free)
Steve Buscemi's take on Jerry Seinfeld's own meta-celebrity interview show was recently nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Buscemi interviews celebrities like Chris Rock and Rosanne Cash, but also random noncelebrities. While some of these chats take place on the eponymous park bench, the city is Buscemi's playground. "Park Bench" is easy and engaging to watch. Buscemi is a natural, and puts all his guests — famous or otherwise — immediately at ease. The show is also a bit of a love letter to New York, with the city serving as an ideal backdrop to Buscemi's conversations about art and life.
Season 1 is available now.
Milo Ventimiglia ("Heroes") stars as a small-time defense lawyer and divorced father who awakens one morning to find himself blackmailed into becoming an assassin in order to save his family in this fast-paced thriller. And that's just the first season. With fast-cut scenes and ominous music, the show plays like a dark atmospheric film. Featuring changing plotlines and characters, "Chosen" is heading into its fourth season of six episodes each. While it may not have the big budget of some Netflix or Amazon series, it's every bit as engaging to watch.
Two words: Lady assassins. In the tradition of "Burn Notice," things go south for the heroines very early on. Betrayed by their boss, they are left with only their deadly skills to save their own lives, and those of a boy and his mother. If you wondered what Gina Gershon and David Arquette have been up to lately, this show is your answer. Gershon plays the mob boss Mother, whose demeanor can turn on a dime from sweet to psychotic. Arquette plays a bumbling FBI agent putting pressure on the assassins. This campy crime-thriller is great fun — but it's also extremely violent, so keep that in mind before your press Play.
Season 1 contains eight episodes and is available to watch now. Season 2, which features 12 episodes, will premiere later this year.
"Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee"
Just renewed for multiple seasons through 2016, Jerry Seinfeld's comedy talk show features banter with a simple format: Seinfeld introduces a vintage car before picking up a guest comedian and taking them for a cup of java. With coffee mates like Tina Fey, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, the show delights with candid moments and spontaneous exchange between great comedic minds.
"Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" is heading into its fourth season on Crackle. The number of episodes per season varies from six to 10.
The show is about a cynical, burned-out bank teller (played by Jason Dore), whose boring and repetitive existence is changed forever when his bank is (wait for it) held up. But there's a twist: The bank is hit not by one band of thieves, but by two. Shenanigans ensue. "Held Up" also stars Kaitlin Olson from "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," and is written by twin comedians, Randy and Jason Sklar.
Season 1 contains 16 episodes to watch right now.
Funny or Die (free)
"Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis"
With its inappropriate questions and non-sequiturs, this comedy series is all about the uncomfortable interplay between host Galifianakis and his roster of celebrity guests. The intentionally low-budget set reminiscent of public access television – complete with potted ferns –adds to the dichotomy of chatting up (and often insulting) high-profile guests like Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Aniston and even President Barack Obama.
"Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis" currently has 19 episodes.
The idea is simple but brilliant: Get someone drunk, ask them to explain a significant historical event, and have a cast of guest stars like Jack Black, Kristen Wiig, Winona Ryder, Bill Hader and many others act it all out. In the spirit of programs like "The Daily Show," this parody is often more informative than serious documentaries — and a lot more fun to watch. The show was picked up by Comedy Central, but you can watch the nine original installments right now on Funny or Die.
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If you don't know Drew Droege of the "Chloe" series, you are in for a treat. Droege, whose mildly deranged impression of Chloe Sevigny made him an Internet darling, is back with a parody of "Looking," the HBO series about a group of gay friends looking for love. "Not Looking," which chronicles a group of gay friends and their total lack of adventures, was originally meant to be a one-off parody, but it was so popular that Droege succeeded in a Kickstarter campaign to fund an entire first season.
Season 1 contains five episodes and is available now.
Hulu Plus ($8 per month)
"Behind The Mask"
You don't have to be a die-hard sports devotee to find yourself inhaling this original documentary series. The show tracks the lives of the people inside your favorite (and also totally unknown) teams' mascot costumes. The stories of college, high school, semi-professional and NBA mascots are more compelling than you'd expect. The first 10-episode season garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding New Approaches in Sports Programming. Who would have thought that the lives of folks parading around inside foam heads would be so addictive? Well, other than Jim Henson fans.
Hulu has announced a second 10-episode season to begin airing "later this year" — in the vague terms many online services use for their schedules.
Blue is a woman with a secret career that she struggles to keep hidden from her son: She's a call girl. Starring Julia Stiles, "Blue" began on the WIGS YouTube channel as part of an initiative to create programming by and for women, before Hulu picked it up for its third season. "Blue" is easily WIGS' most successful project to date, propelled to greater heights by Stiles' star appeal and the program's risque content. In the tradition of shows like Australia's "Satisfaction," "Blue" challenges the viewer to re-evaluate the portrayal of sex workers.
Seasons 1 and 2 are available on the WIGS YouTube channel. You can watch all of Season 3 on Hulu.
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This new spoof channels TV's "Ghost Whisperer" but in a style that is closer to an R-rated comedy film, complete with pot smoking and F-bombs. Currently in its first season, "Deadbeat" follows actor Tyler Labine's character Kevin, a ghost-seeing medium who helps spooks finish their business on Earth. Stoner misfit Kevin struggles with learning how to harness his power with stubborn spirits and make a buck in the process. Meanwhile, he struggles to convince others that he really can communicate with the dead.
"Deadbeat" is in its first season of 10 episodes on Hulu and has already been renewed for a second season.
"The Hotwives of Orlando"
This parody of Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise is infinitely more enjoyable than the reality shows it mocks. Imagine if today's catty reality stars were self-aware, and presto, you've got "Hotwives." Starring the likes of Kristen Schaal, Paul Scheer and "The Office" veteran Angela Kinsey, it's funny enough to have already won the approval of the original "Housewives" puppet master, Bravo's Andy Cohen.
You can watch all seven episodes of Season 1 right now.
Netflix ($8 per month; $9 for new subscribers)
Patient fans' long suffering ended when Netflix revived this dysfunctional family comedy, which ended its third season on Fox back in 2006. Because creator Mitch Hurwitz had to deal with scheduling limitations of many of the original cast members, including Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter, the series adopted a different style. Instead of its original structure intertwining the quirky dialogue of characters, in Season 4, the show instead spotlights a single cast member at a time. Because of that, Netflix's resurrected TV series may not have quite the same one-two dialogue punch, but eventually the interlaced structure pays off once earlier scenes come into context.
"Arrested Development" Season 4's 15 episodes are currently available on Netflix. Season 5 is in discussions.
Critics have panned Netflix's horror series for its over-the-top campiness. But the ridiculous behavior of the show's mythical creatures and dysfunctional characters makes it a guilty pleasure for many viewers. A talented cast that includes Famke Janssen ("X-Men"), Lily Taylor ("Six Feet Under") and Bill Skarsgard helps, too. Despite even the simplest line of dialogue not making sense, the tendency is to want to keep watching.
"Hemlock Grove" is heading into its second season of 10 more episodes.
"House of Cards"
Based on the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name, the Netflix original takes viewers to the back corridors of corruption, sex and greed in today's Washington, D.C. Created by acclaimed director David Fincher ("Fight Club") and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey along with Robin Wright, "House of Cards" made history as the first-ever streaming series to earn Primetime Emmy nominations. Many critics consider it to be one of the highest quality series online because of its level of acting, production and directing. It's also one of the first online shows to be streamed in 4K for those lucky enough to have a TV that supports that resolution.
"House of Cards" has two seasons with 13 episodes in each season. It has been renewed for a third season.
"The Killing"Seattle detectives Linden and Holder are back, with old wounds to heal and a new murder case to solve in Veena Sud's adaptation of the bleak Danish crime drama. With the migration from AMC to Netflix for its fourth and final season, the show's episodes are closer to an hour in length, and slightly more adult in content. This season brings a new mystery, a strong new guest star in actress Joan Allen, and promised closure for the viewers and Detectives Linden and Holder, played by and Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman.
Fans of "The Killing" are die-hard in their defense of the show, and former fans tend to be livid. Will this season make up for the lackluster endings of seasons past? You decide.
Season 4 has six episodes and will be available starting Aug. 1.
This is not a show you'll love immediately, but it's absolutely worth the uphill climb of the first few episodes. Steven Van Zandt (known for "The Sopranos" and the time he spends rocking out with Bruce Springsteen) stars as a former New York mob boss (naturally) who moves to Norway in the hope of starting over. Things don't go as planned. The show's deft handling of a displaced American gangster evolves into something much more interesting and, at times, more comedic than you'd expect.
Seasons 1 and 2 are available now. Season 3 began production in January, but Netflix hasn't named a premiere date.
"Orange is the New Black"
Prison has never been seen through this lens before. Sentenced to 15 months behind bars for a crime committed in her younger days, Piper (Taylor Schilling) is forced to navigate the hierarchical world where a certain reaction can either make or break you. The show is full of unique characters and stories with the entire range of human emotions brought vividly to life. Warning: Due to its graphic sexual content, the series is not appropriate for younger eyes.
"Orange is the New Black" was just renewed for its third season, with each season consisting of 13 episodes.
Yahoo Screen (free)
Ben Stiller executive produced this popular parody of TV reality dating shows. Each season features a bachelor or bachelorette looking for the perfect mate among contestants vying for a cash prize while living together in a mansion. The series, which has since gained a larger audience after being picked up by E! television, blatantly mocks the drama involved in such competitive reality TV shows. Michael Ian Black is spot on as the show's host. But it's the revolving cast of celebrities appearing as contestants, including Jennifer Aniston, Malin Akerman, Michael Serra and Kristin Bell, that keeps each episode fresh and fun.
"Burning Love" is in its third season on Yahoo Screen, with 42 episodes in total.
"Blank on Blank"
The animated vignettes from PBS digital studios on YouTube have created more than a series but a movement in the name of journalistic preservation. Featuring the raw vintage interviews of cultural icons, the once-lost tapes are smartly produced into five-minute animated pieces that create poignant glimpses into personalities. The episode featuring Jerry Garcia will make you laugh at his candidness about his band name and drug use. The one featuring Louis Armstrong may bring a tear to your eye because of his graciousness to the two fledgling reporters.
"Blank on Blank" releases a new episode on YouTube every other Tuesday. There are currently 23 episodes.
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