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10 YouTube Essays That'll Broaden Your Pop Culture Education

Clockwise from left: Passengers, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Toy Story 4.
Clockwise from left: Passengers, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Toy Story 4.
Image: Village Roadshow Pictures, Camfam Studios, Mutant Enemy Productions, Disney

YouTube is a great place to find clips of cats and goats becoming best friends (holy crap it actually exists), but it’s also where you can learn about almost anything—including the art of entertainment. We’ve pulled out some awesome video essays to help you educate yourself about the media we consume while showcasing the creators behind those projects.

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Movies, shows, comics, and other forms of entertainment are great ways to pass the time, but there’s a deeper conversation to be had about the stories we tell and how we consume them. Luckily, there are plenty of video essayists who are diving deep into the best and worst parts of modern media. We weren’t able to include every creator, of course, so be sure to leave a comment with the video essayists you’re most fond of—as well as your favorite projects from them.

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1. The Nerdwriter

YouTuber Evan Puschak, better known as Nerdwriter, focuses on the look, sound, and history behind beloved movies. Topics include a deep dive into Battle Royale, examining what magic in Harry Potter sounds like, and the art behind sci-fi book covers. The one I highlighted here focuses on Toy Story 4’s use of a split diopter shot, which is a physical camera technique, and what it says about the way Pixar wanted to convey its story.

2. The Pop Culture Detective Agency

This series from former Tropes vs Women in Video Games writer Jonathan McIntosh examines the intersections of masculinity, politics, and entertainment—specifically looking at the positive and negative ways gender is represented in media. Topics have included the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, when the sexual assault of men is played for laughs, and Steven Universe’s portrayal of emotions and expression. The video featured here looks at how films like Passengers portray kidnapping stories as romantic.

3. What’s So Great About That

Grace Lee’s YouTube series profiles themes and how storytelling serves (or fails to serve) those themes through its writing and visuals. Topics include the physicality of ghosts, why folklore horror is so terrifying, and how blue is the most human color. The video above is a look at David Lynch’s use of language in Twin Peaks and other works.

4. Maggie Mae Fish

Maggie Mae Fish’s YouTube series runs a pretty wide gamut of film analysis, from RoboCop to Rugrats to Sorry to Bother You. Her recent series looking at religious movies is also an examination of the Christian film industry and how it uses messaging to promote consumerism, discrimination, and strict ideology. The featured video looks at the storm that was Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, a movie that’s almost too wild to believe is real.

5. Lindsay Ellis

Author and film theorist Lindsay Ellis’ unique brand of comedy and analysis looks at some of the most popular corporations and subjects in modern filmmaking. Topics include Disney’s attempts to “woke” its classic movies, the lazy worldbuilding of Netflix’s Bright, and a series using various film studies to examine Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. The featured video looks at Tom Hooper’s Cats, shining a light on the critical response and whether it accurately reflected the intent of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s project.

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6. Kaptain Kristian

Kristian Williams’ YouTube channel plays like a love letter to cinema, looking at all the parts that come together to make a story. Topics have included Guillermo del Toro’s unique monsters and makeup, the “beautiful future” of Her, and how Wonder Woman is a symbol of progress. The highlighted video focuses on the peace and serenity of Hayao Miyazaki’s films because we all could use a little extra beauty in our lives.

7. The Take

The Take, a series from ScreenPrism, covers everything from common character tropes to why How I Met Your Mother’s ending was so terrible (and it truly was). Topics have included whether A Quiet Place is a political film, the “child prodigy” trope, and why Riverdale’s Betty Cooper represents the death of the Nice Girl. The featured video looks at how Rick and Morty is symbolically in the time-travel genre, even if the two characters don’t actually time travel.

8. 100 Years of Cinema

This YouTube series is looking at the past century in filmmaking, using one movie per year to look at what the industry was doing at the time and what kind of stories they were trying to tell. Topics include the first Batman film in 1943, the groundbreaking influence of Metropolis, and how King Kong launched a new era in American special effects. However, the series does branch out to dive deeper into different genres. The video featured looks at the history of the zombie movie.

9. Folding Ideas

Editor Dan Olson’s videos usually focus on the visuals in filmmaking, how vital the things we see are in how we process the overall story, but he also goes into other ways a story can succeed or fail to get its message across. Topics have included a deep dive into the 50 Shades of Gray series, the myth and legend of the Snyder Cut, and what happens when a movie like Wonder Park just doesn’t have a director. Some of his highlighted work specifically looks at the art of editing—usually by showing bad examples, like we see in this video about The Snowman.

10. Sarah Z

Sarah Z’s video essays break down some of the topics we always want to see covered in deep dives but tend to be avoided. Things like the art of fan fiction, fast food Twitter, and the company behind Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Several of her videos examine queer representation in media, including double standards in media and whether something constitutes “queerbaiting.” The featured video looks at a topic of personal interest to me: Joss Whedon’s complicated legacy and representation of women, as seen through Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

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Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.

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DISCUSSION

Blind-Prophet
Blind Prophet

No Mikey?

Well lets solve this with his two part deep dive (though not that show) into Star Trek: