Once upon a time, the words "web video series" brought a particular vision to mind.
Low production values. A D.I.Y. look that seemed shot with a camcorder or webcam, even when it wasn't. And an eccentric, almost anti-TV focus aimed at creating a new kind of programming online.
Even at a time when some web series have transitioned to bigger TV outlets — Showtime's Web Therapy with Friends alum Lisa Kudrow is a recent, Emmy-winning standout — many popular series still follow that aesthetic.
But there's a change under way. Developed by a few of the biggest names in television and film, some online series have a production level matching anything on cable or broadcast TV.
Distributed on major platforms such as Yahoo!, YouTube, Crackle, Netflix or Hulu, these shows aim to meld the technical quality of top-shelf television with the experimental vibe of online-only work. Stars often surface in different roles and new capacities.
Next year, major series such as Netflix's revival of Arrested Development and its Kevin Spacey show House of Cards will debut solely on streaming video, extending the trend.
Before those big titles drop, get used to the new wave of online video by checking out a few of these new series.
Ruth and Erica
YouTube's WIGS channel
Developed as a channel filled with original shows led by female characters, WIGS has a growing roster of web series, each distinguished by the name of its lead character.
The show currently rolling out is Ruth and Erica, a poignant tale featuring ER alum Maura Tierney as Erica, a middle-aged woman whose lovable dad Harry (Philip Baker Hall), is suffering from dementia. Lois Smith (Sookie's grandmother on True Blood) is her steely mother Ruth, a woman dealing with the decline of her longtime partner first with denial and later with growing dread.
WIGS' best work offers details about characters doled out slowly, in tiny touches. We learn Harry might be having cognitive problems when he insists Erica call an infomercial host on the TV they're watching for a date; we suspect Erica is dating a married man (Wings alum Steven Weber) when we see a ring on his finger, but he can't remember the name of Erica's father.
At first, such series can feel like an acting exercise with better lighting. But after sampling the first few episodes of Ruth and Erica, I was compelled to watch more — a crucial test for an online show.
Forrest Gump star Mykelti Williamson and Tuesdays with Maury author Mitch Albom pop up as writer/directors of other series. These shows, which seem to attract an average of about 19,000 views, start slow and grow; much like the heroines at the heart of many stories here.
This is an amazing, dry comedy about a brutal crisis management expert who becomes an unwilling and inexperienced athletic director at a university in the South mired in scandal.
Doesn't sound funny, I know. But Marc Evan Jackson plays crisis manager Jim Dunnigan as a corporate smoothie so ruthless, he recommends firing the CEO who hired him in a previous job. When he tries to cut a booster loose from the university for giving an illegal gift to a quarterback (actually, a pig), the athletic director quits instead and Dunnigan, who knows nothing about college sports, must step up.
Barry Corbin (Kyra Sedgwick's crusty-yet-lovable dad on The Closer) is Glory University's crusty-yet-savvy chancellor, the most recognizable name here. Told in episodes sized from 7 minutes to 16 minutes, it's short enough to watch quickly and funny enough to make you want to share episodes online — perhaps the most important quality for a web series.
This is, unfortunately, an example of what can go wrong in an ambitious online series. Developed by CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, Cybergeddon is the story of an ambitious, behind-kicking, beautiful cybercrime specialist for the government made to look like a master hacker by a guy she once arrested, leaving him free to organize the biggest online heist in history.
It would seem a perfect storyline for an online series, but Cybergeddon instead feels like a souped-up version of those B-level action series USA Network once aired, like Silk Stalkings and Renegade.
Like CSI, it's a wonderful-looking show with a predictable plot and decided lack of action. It's hard to care about an action series mostly featuring scenes of people talking at each other.
Ultimately it's like a great-looking video game with lackluster action, mostly a study in opportunities missed.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (youtube.com/LizzieBennet), an update of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice told in YouTube video diaries, with characters talking on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and more; Husbands (husbandstheseries.com/), the story of two famous gay men who decide to stay together after they get married in a drunken evening, though they barely know each other, to avoid harming the gay marriage cause.