YouTube’s algorithm is designed to keep your eyeballs glued to video after video (after video, after video…). The dangers of this rabbit hole are well-documented. However, for every ideological radicalisation enabled by YouTube, I like to think there’s at least one innocent, newfound pop culture obsession discovered at 3 a.m. via the greatest medium of our time: the Video Essay.
The genre of YouTube video essays is more interesting than it sounds. Sure, any piece of video content that advances a central thesis could be considered a “video essay.” But there are key components of video essays that elevate the genre into so much more than simply a YouTube version of a written article. Over the past few years, the term “YouTube video essay” has grown to evoke connotations of niche fascination and discovery. For creators, the field is highly competitive with strong personalities trying to get eyes on extremely in-depth analysis of a wide range of topics. The “niche” factor is especially important here. Ultimately, the hallmark of a good video essay is its ability to captivate you into watching hours of content about a subject matter you would have never expected to care about in the first place. Scary? Maybe. Fun? Definitely.
Whether you’re sceptical about the power of video essays, or you’re an existing fan looking for your next niche obsession, I’ve rounded up some of my personal favourite YouTube video essays for you to lean in and watch. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and it largely reflects what the algorithm thinks (knows) I personally want to watch.
Other factors that influenced my selection process: The video essays needed to have a strong, surprising thesis — something other than a creator saying “this thing good” or “this thing bad.” These videos also stood out to me due to their sheer amount of thorough, hard-hitting evidence, as well as the dedication on the behalf of the YouTubers who chose to share with us hours upon hours of research into these topics.
And yes, I have watched all the hours of content featured here. I’m a professional.
Disney’s FastPass: A Complicated History
Let’s start strong with a documentary so premium, I can’t believe it’s free. Multiple articles and reviews have been dedicated to Defunctland’s video series about, well, waiting in line. I know what you’re thinking — the only thing that sounds more boring than waiting in line is watching a video about waiting in line. But Defunctland’s investigation into the history of Disneyland’s FastPass system has so much more to offer.
Class warfare. Human behaviour. The perils of capitalism. One commenter under the video captures it well by writing “oddly informative and vaguely terrifying.” Since its launch in 2017, Kevin Perjurer’s entire Defunctland YouTube channel has become a leading voice in extremely thorough video essays. The FastPass analysis is one of the most rewarding of all of Defunctland’s in-depth amusement park coverage.
I won’t spoil it here, but the best part of the video is hands-down when Perjurer reveals an animated simulation of the theme park experience to test out how various line-reservation systems work. Again, no spoilers, but get ready for a wildly satisfying “gotcha” moment.
Personally, I’ve never had any interest one way or another about Disney-affiliated theme parks. I’ve never been, and I never planned on going. That’s the main reason I’m selling you on this video essay right off the bat. Defunctland is a perfect example of how the genre of video essays has such a high bar for investigative reporting, shocking analysis, and an ability to suck you in to a topic you never thought you’d care about.
Watch time: 1:42:59 (like a proper feature documentary)
THE Vampire Diaries Video
No list of video essays can get very far without including Jenny Nicholson, a true titan of the genre. Or, as one commenter puts it, “The power of Jenny Nicholson: getting me to watch an almost three hour long video about something I don’t care about.” I struggled to pick which of her videos to feature here, but at over seven million views, “THE Vampire Diaries Video” might just be Nicholson’s magnum opus. Once you break out the red string on a cork board, it’s safe to say that you’re in magnum opus territory.
I haven’t ever seen an episode of CW’s The Vampire Diaries, but since this video essay captivated me, I can safely say that I’m an expert on the show. Nicholson’s reputation as a knowledgeable, passionate, funny YouTuber is well-earned. She’s a proper geek, and watching her cultural analyses feel like I’m nerding out with one of my smartest friends. If you really don’t think The Vampire Diaries investigation is for you (and I argue that it’s for everyone), I recommend “A needlessly thorough roast of Dear Evan Hansen” instead.
Watch time: 2:33:19
In Search Of A Flat Earth
Did you think you could get through a YouTube video round-up without single mention of Flat Earthers? Wishful thinking.
“In Search of Flat Earth” is a beautiful, thoughtful video essay slash feature-length documentary. Don’t go into this video if you’re looking to bash and ridicule flat earth conspiracy theorists. Instead, Olson’s core argument takes a somewhat sympathetic gaze to the fact that Flat Earthers cannot be “reasoned” out of their beliefs with “science” or “evidence.” Plus, this video has a satisfying second-act plot twist. As Olson points out, “In Search of Flat Earth” could have an alternative clickbait title of “The Twist at 37 Minutes Will Make You Believe We Live In Hell.” Over the years, Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has helped to popularise the entire video essay genre, and this one just might be his masterpiece.
Watch time: 1:16:16
The Rise and Fall of Teen Dystopias
Sarah Z is your go-to Gen Z cultural critic and explainer. The YouTuber brings her knack for loving-yet-shrewd analysis to dig into fandom culture, the YA book industry, and why the teen dystopia got beaten into the ground.
I’ve found that one of the most reliable video essay formulas is some version of “what went wrong with [incredibly popular cultural moment].” In the case of teen dystopias, it’s a fascinating take on how a generation of teen girls were drawn to bad arse, anti-establishment heroines, only to watch those types of characters get mass produced and diluted into mockery. But maybe I’m biased here; as the exact demographic targeted by the peak of The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent, this cultural debrief speaks to my soul.
Watch time: 1:22:41
A Buffet of Black Food History
Food is an effective way to combine economic, cultural, and social histories–and Black American food history is an especially rich one. Food resonates with people, allowing us to connect with the past in a much more real way than if we were memorising dates and locations from a textbook. Historian Elexius Jionde of Intelexual Media is a pro at taking what could be a standard history lesson and turning it into an interesting journey full of crazy characters and tidbits.
Most of the comments beneath the video are complaints that the video deserves to be so much longer. It’s jam-packed with surprising facts, fun asides, and, of course, tantalising descriptions of the food at hand. Jionde even warns you right at the top: “Turn this video off right now if you’re hungry.”
Watch time: 22:39
The reign of the Slim-Thick Influencer
At this point, I’m assuming you know what a BBL is. Even if you aren’t familiar with the term (Brazilian butt lifts, FYI), then you’ve still probably observed the trend. Before big butts, it was thigh gaps. The pendulum swing of trending body types is nothing new. Curves are in, curves are out, thick thighs save lives, “skinny fat” is bad, and now, “slim thick” looms large. How do different body types fall in and out of fashion, and what effect does this have on the people living in those bodies?
Creator Khadija Mbowe identifies and analyses a lot of the issues with how women’s bodies (especially Black women’s) are commodified, without ever blaming the bodies that are under fire. Mbowe handles the topic with grace and humour, even when discussing how deeply personal it is to them. If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a photo of an Instagram influencer, please do yourself a favour and watch this video essay.
Watch time: 54:18
Flight of the Navigator
Once again: I have been sucked into a video about a film that I have never seen and probably never will. Captain Disillusion, whose real name is Alan Melikdjanian, is another giant of the video essay genre, posting videos to a not-too-shabby audience of 2.29 million subscribers. Most of Captain Dissilision’s videos that I’d seen before this were of the creator debunking viral videos, exposing how certain visual effects were “obviously” faked. In this video, he turns his eye for debunking special effects not to viral videos, but to the 1986 Disney sci-fi adventure Flight of the Navigator.
This behind-the-scenes analysis of the Disney film is incredibly informative, tackling every instance when someone might ask, “Hey, how did they manage to film that?” It also touches upon the history of the special effects industry, something that deserves a little extra appreciation as CGI takes over every corner of movie-making.
Watch time: 41:28
The Failure of Victorious
YouTuber Quinton Reviews is dedicated to his craft, and I thank him for it. As you’ve certainly caught on to by now, you truly do not need to know anything about the show Victorious to enjoy an hours-long video essay that digs into it. What makes this video stand out is the sheer amount of content that this YouTuber both consumed and then created for us. Part of the video length — a whopping five hours — is due to the fact that every single episode of the Nickelodeon show is dissected. Another reason for the length is all the care that Quinton Reviews puts into providing context. And the context is what made me stick around: the failures of TV networks, the psychological dangers of working as child stars, and the questionable adult jokes that were broadcast to young audiences…if you’re at all interested in tainting your memory of hit Nickelodeon shows, this video is for you.
Watch time: 5:34:58 (And that’s just part one. Strap in!)
Why Anime is for Black People
In this video Travis goes through the history of the “hip hop x anime” phenomenon, in which East Asian media permeates Black culture (and vice versa, as he hints at near the end). Although I am (1) not Black and (2) not an avid anime fan, I first clicked on this video because I’m a fan of comedian and writer Yedoye Travis. And yet — big shocker — I was immediately engrossed with the subject matter, despite having no context heading into it. Once you finish watching this video, be sure to check out Megan Thee Stallion’s interview about her connection to anime.
I haven’t run this part by my editor yet, but now would be a prime time to plug Lifehacker Editor-in-Chief Jordan Calhoun’s book, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture. Just saying.
Watch time: 18:34 (basically nothing in the world of video essays, especially compared to the five hours of Victorious content I binged earlier)
Efficiency in Comedy: The Office vs. Friends
I’m rounding out this list on a note of personal sentimentality. This is one of the first video essays that got me hooked on the format, mostly because I had followed creator Drew Gooden to YouTube after his stardom on Vine (RIP). This video is one of his most popular, combining comedy and maths to pit two of the most popular sitcoms of all time in a joke-for-joke battle.
Gooden in particular stands out as someone who excels as both an earnest comic and a thoughtful critic of comedy. I appreciate his perspective as someone who knows what it’s like to work for a laugh and wants to get to the bottom of why something is or isn’t funny. This isn’t even one of Gooden’s best videos (I actually think his take on the parallels between Community and Arrested Development has a much stronger argument), but it’s a great example of the sort of perspective best situated to make video essays in the first place. Because what makes all these video essays so compelling is often the personality behind the argument. These aren’t investigative journalists or professional critics. They’re YouTubers. Really smart YouTubers, but still: These videos are born out of everyday people who simply have something to say.
I believe the modern YouTube video essay is uniquely situated to put cultural critique back into the hands of the average consumer — but only if that consumer is willing to put in the work to become a creator themselves.
Watch time: 17:36