In the past, major TV networks have increased the visibility of their shows by making select episodes available on YouTube.
Free television episodes on YouTube are typically series pilots or season premieres, but sometimes they can be stand-alone episodes or lower-profile projects posted online to build some buzz. Although many of these free entertainment offerings tend to disappear from YouTube after a while, there are still plenty of quality episodes from major networks and streaming platforms to binge on without spending a dime.
Plus, there’s also a treasure trove of classic (or simply nostalgic) TV episodes uploaded by fans or specialized channels like Shout! Factory and Retro Rerun. Even more interestingly, some popular TV shows got their start as web series on YouTube, giving fans an intriguing look at how some of their favorite shows began.
Here are some of Digital Trends’ favorite freebies you can find on YouTube.
Insecure — Insecure AF
HBO’s Insecure centers on show creator Issa Rae and the constellation of friends, lovers, and coworkers that orbits her. Inspired by Rae’s New York Times best-selling novel The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, this HBO comedy mines absurdity from the most normal occurrences, like a simple girls’ night out.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl
It’s especially appropriate that episode one of Insecure is on YouTube, because not only was The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl a best-selling novel, but it was also a snappy web series. Fans of Insecure will love this web series, which they’ll find is quite similar to Insecure, only grittier and more awkward. If you want to see how Issa Rae developed her voice and laid the blueprint for Insecure, check it out.
Cobra Kai — Ace Degenerate
Cobra Kai is usually locked behind YouTube Premium’s paywall — at least, it is for now — but the video giant has made the first episode of its best-received original series available for free. Set 34 years after The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai recasts that film’s villain, Johnny Lawrence, as a down-and-out handyman who reopens his old dojo, making it a haven for misfit teens — and reigniting his old rivalry with Daniel LaRusso in the process. Both William Zabka and Ralph Macchio are excellent as older versions of the characters they originated in 1984, the new kids are great, and the ’80s and early-’90s nostalgia is a fun throwback to the days when it felt like karate could solve any problem.
Columbo — Murder by the Book
Peter Falk’s scruffy, blue-collar homicide detective is one of television’s all-time great sleuths, but you won’t currently find Columbo on any streaming services. The only way to watch the classic series online is to head over to the official Columbo YouTube channel, where you’ll find a smattering of episodes. That includes the series pilot, which was helmed by a young director named Steven Spielberg. We’re calling it: That kid’s going places.
The Prisoner — Arrival
Forget television. The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s trippy, paranoid sci-fi thriller, is one of the very best pieces of genre fiction ever produced in any medium. In the show, McGoohan plays Number Six, a retired secret agent who wakes up one day in The Village, a dystopian seaside resort. While Number Six tries to escape, the Village’s mysterious leaders do everything that they can to bend him to their will, setting off a battle of wills that’s just as epic as anything you’d find in an old-school James Bond flick, except way, way smarter.
Vice on HBO — State of Surveillance
There may not be a better person to explain how much our everyday technology is used to spy on us than the man who exposed the United States’ immense surveillance efforts, Edward Snowden. In this episode of Vice on HBO, Snowden walks Vice CEO Shane Smith through numerous ways that simple devices such as your cell phone can be used to record your every movement.
Do You Want to See a Dead Body?
The new episodes of this Funny or Die saga are, unfortunately, not free as they’re a part of YouTube Red. However, the originals are still on YouTube. In the series, Rob Huebel stars as a schlubbier version of himself who ambushes celebrities and hangs with them until … he shows them a dead body! It gets dark and weird, but Huebel’s earnestly awful attempts to lead a fun adventure make it fun. Guests include John Cho, Judy Greer, Craig Robinson, Adam Scott, and many more.
ReBoot: The Series
Created in 1994, ReBoot is the first computer-animated television series in history. Yes, even before Pixar’s Toy Story, Canadian network YTV was using computer animation to ask some probing questions about an emerging digital world. Bob is a guardian from the Super Computer, tasked to defend the digital city of Mainframe from evil computer viruses that seek to control the city and infect the entire ‘net. He’s helped along the way by his friends Dot and Enzo and his dog Frisket. It pales in comparison to Toy Story, of course, but ReBoot‘s four seasons are a fascinating look at the dawn of the computer age.
Donkey Kong Country — Episode 1
Computer animation was all the rage in the late ’90s, just in time to capitalize on the popularity of video game systems like PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Fortunately, in 1997, that gave us Donkey Kong Country, the computer-animated series based on the hit video game character. This series takes us further into King K. Rool’s obsessive mission to steal the Crystal Coconut and Donkey Kong’s valiant efforts to defend it. The animation is terrible but there are a number of episodes on YouTube if you’re looking for a nostalgic binge that will make you wonder if you ever really were impressed by the graphics as a kid.
Larry David’s daughter, Cazzie David, stars and serves as co-writer for this web series that has been called Curb Your Enthusiasm for millennials. Low-hanging fruit, surely, but Eighty-Sixed unapologetically goes for the cringeworthy, just like Curb. Amazon is creating a show loosely based on the web series, entitled Half-Empty, which David will also write. If you’re looking for a relatively quick, deeply uncomfortable (yet charming) watch that inspired something larger, Eighty-Sixed is for you.
Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? — Pilot
Yes, even game shows appear on YouTube! For instance: This 2019 Nickelodeon reboot of Fox’s Jeff Foxworthy-hosted Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? stars John Cena in yet another notch in his belt. From WWE to rom-coms to big-budget action movies to hosting game shows on Nickelodeon, Cena seems to be everywhere these days and, frankly, that’s OK. This show probably should have been geared more toward the kids than the adults in the first place, and it makes for a fun watch for families with elementary-aged kids.