With the rise of paid platforms for binging shows, it seems as if everyone has forgotten about YouTube as a place to watch more than just Vine compilations. While paying for YouTube Red gives you access to original full-length movies and shows, you can find shorter, less conventional, more quality series on YouTube for free.
Each of the following six web series is delightfully nerdy and most have their roots in literature. With episodes ranging from two to twenty minutes long, these series are the perfect quick study breaks—unless you get sucked into binging them.
1. Edgar Allen Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party (2017)
Better known as “Poe Party,” this web series imagines what would happen if Edgar Allen Poe invited a slew of other authors to a dinner party hosted by himself and Lenore, the ghost of Poe’s “The Raven” (1845). The show combines the plot of the movie “Clue” (1985)—a dinner party that goes awry when the guests start mysteriously dying one by one—with the colorful personalities of some of the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s most brilliant writers.
Hilarious no matter your knowledge of classic literature, “Poe Party” is even more hysterical if you understand the historical truth behind references to Louisa May Alcott’s vegetarianism, Ernest Hemingway’s alcoholism, Oscar Wilde’s sexuality, Mary Shelley’s gothic intensity and George Eliot’s true identity as a woman, not to mention the awkward friendlessness of Poe himself. The authors’ works also find a place in the show, and if you are anything like me and are a bit of a literature nerd, you will enjoy the nods to “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Frankenstein” and “Crime and Punishment,” among others.
2. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012)
Many of the actors from “Poe Party” got their web series beginnings through “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” and you may enjoy seeing people who played a company of authors in “Poe Party” putting a modern spin on one of those authors’ novels in “LBD.” In this series, Lizzie Bennet of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is a grad student creating a series of vlogs for her thesis. The series is 100 short episodes long, and it chronicles Lizzie’s family life, translating each character and scene from the novel into modern caricatures which retain Austen’s hilarity in the context of a new digital age.
“LBD” won the 2013 Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media, and it paved the way for future projects incorporating various forms of social media into an online show. Each of the characters in the web series had their own Twitter account, and a few got their own spinoff vlog channels; their accounts often replied to viewers’ tweets and comments, giving the audience a unique opportunity to interact with the characters of a series in addition to the actors themselves.
3. Emma Approved (2013)
An adaptation of Austen’s “Emma,” “Emma Approved” tells the modernized story of Emma Woodhouse; in this web series, she is a bossy businesswoman, fashion expert and matchmaker determined to document her successes for YouTube. Watching Emma’s ideas of perfection slowly crumble around her has been satisfying for generations of Austen’s readers, and this adaptation is no different, turning its title character into a modern-day strong female entrepreneur who is unlikable at first but nonetheless admirable in her self-assuredness.
The first few episodes of “Emma Approved” are admittedly slow, but once you become invested in the story and its lovably imperfect characters, you’ll be glad the entire series has already been released so you don’t have to wait a week to find out the resolution to each cliffhanger.
4. Nothing Much To Do (2014)
Similar to “LBD” and “Emma Approved,” this web series modernizes a classic story, but this time, Shakespeare provides the original material. The show sets his comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” in a high school, the perfect setting for the petty, childish drama and miscommunication that characterizes much of the story. The cynical sassiness of the protagonist, Beatrice, translates well into a modern setting, and a web of relationships and betrayal finds its place in typical high school drama.
Unexpectedly, specific lines from Shakespeare’s play appear in “Nothing Much To Do” through the musician Balthazar’s cover of Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More.” In the play, Balthazar sings some lines that inspired the lyrics of the song, and the presence of the cover in the web series is an entertaining nod to the show’s source material.
5. Classic Alice (2014)
Alice Rackham is the sort of person who might get sucked into a destructive spiral of obsession with “Poe Party” or any other literary web series. A college English major and an ambitious writer, she decides to start living her life according to the plots of classic novels, while her friend and love interest documents her experiment for YouTube. Initially, Alice takes a lighthearted approach to letting book plots control her own narrative, but as her devotion to the project increases, her story becomes more bizarre and “Classic Alice” becomes a wild ride of literary obsession gone too far.
Like “Poe Party,” “Classic Alice” is even more rewarding if you’ve read some of the books featured in the series. Alice’s journey through book plots is all the more stressful when you know just how much of a tragedy “Macbeth” is, or how many trials Anne Elliot of “Persuasion” has to go through before she gets her happy ending.
6. Squaresville (2012)
Although not a literary web series, “Squaresville” receives an honorable mention when it comes to your “must watch” list. Two high school best friends long to escape their repressively boring town, and because they can’t leave in reality until they go off to college, they spend their high school years using their imaginations to spirit themselves away to fantasy lands full of danger and intrigue—or just to come up with creative and slightly deviant ways to entertain themselves. For anyone who has ever wished in vain for something interesting to happen in a boring place, “Squaresville” is a heartwarming yet heartbreaking story of how imagination succeeds and fails in making reality a livelier place to be.
Unfortunately, “Squaresville” ended in 2013 after the finale of Season 2. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t feel like a conclusive ending either, so if you start watching the show, get ready to miss its lovable characters and wish you could keep watching for another season past its finale.
With nearly every TV show in existence at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget about other forms of entertainment media. There are countless nerdy web series such as these six on YouTube, some winning Emmys and others barely reaching a thousand views per episode. But no matter how popular or well-known, web series are valuable and quirky supplements to regular TV shows, and they’re definitely worth watching.