Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.
Like every medium before it, “video essays” on YouTube had a long road of production before being taken seriously. Film was undervalued in favor of literature, TV was undervalued in favor of film, and YouTube was undervalued in favor of TV. In over 10 years of video essays, though, there are some that stand out as landmarks of the form, masterpieces to bring new audiences in.
In Polygon’s list of the best video essays of 2020, we outlined a taxonomy of what a video essay is. But time should be given to explain what video essays have been and where they might be going.
Video essays can be broken into three eras: pre-BreadTube, the BreadTube era, and post-BreadTube. So, what the hell is BreadTube? BreadTube, sometimes also called “LeftTube,” can be defined as a core group of high production value, academically-minded YouTubers who rose to prominence at the same time.
A brief history of video essays on YouTube
On YouTube, video essays pre-BreadTube started in earnest just after something completely unrelated to YouTube: the adoption of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (or, colloquially, just the “Common Core”). The Common Core was highly political, a type of hotly-contested educational reform that hadn’t been rolled out in decades.
Meanwhile, YouTube was in one of its earliest golden eras in 2010. Four years prior, YouTube had been purchased by Google for $1.65 billion in stock, a number that is simultaneously bonkers high and bonkers low. Ad revenue for creators was flowing. Creators like PewDiePie and Shane Dawson were thriving (because time is a flat circle). With its 2012 Original Channel Initiative, Google invested $100 million, and later an additional $200 million, to both celebrity and independent creators for new, original content on YouTube in an early attempt to rival TV programming.
This was also incentivized by YouTube’s 2012 public change to their algorithm, favoring watch time over clicks.
But video essays still weren’t a major genre on YouTube until the educational turmoil and newfound funds collided, resulting in three major networks: Crash Course in 2011 and SourceFed and PBS Digital Studios in 2012.
The BreadTube Era
With Google’s AdSense making YouTube more and more profitable for some creators, production values rose, and longer videos rose in prominence in the algo. Key creators became household names, but there was a pattern: most were fairly left-leaning and white.
But in 2019, long-time YouTube creator Kat Blaque asked, “Why is ‘LeftTube’ so white?”
Blaque received massive backlash for her criticisms; however, many other nonwhite YouTubers took the opportunity to speak up. More examples include Cheyenne Lin’s “Why Is YouTube So White?”, Angie Speaks’ “Who Are Black Leftists Supposed to Be?”, and T1J’s “I’m Kinda Over This Whole ‘LeftTube’ Thing.”
Since the whiteness of video essays has been more clearly illuminated, terms like “BreadTube’’ and “LeftTube” are seldom used to describe the video essay space. Likewise, the importance of flashy production has been de-emphasized.
Like most phenomena, BreadTube does not have a single moment one can point to as its end, but in 2020 and 2021, it became clear that the golden days of BreadTube were in the past.
And, notably, prominent BreadTube creators consistently found themselves in hot water on Twitter. If beauty YouTubers have mastered the art of the crying apology video, video essayists have begun the art of intellectualized, conceptualized, semi-apology video essays. Natalie Wynn’s “Canceling” and Lindsay Ellis’s “Mask Off” discuss the YouTubers’ experiences with backlash after some phenomenally yikes tweets. Similarly, Gita Jackson of Vice has reported on the racism of SocialismDoneLeft.
We’re now in post-BreadTube era. More Black creators, like Yhara Zayd and Khadija Mbowe, are valued as the important video essayists they are. Video essays and commentary channels are seeing more overlap, like the works of D’Angelo Wallace and Jarvis Johnson.
With a history of YouTube video essays out of the way, let’s discuss some of the best of the best, listed here in chronological order by release date, spanning all three eras of the genre. Only one video essay has been selected from each creator, and creators whose works have also been featured on our Best of 2020 list have different works selected here. If you like any of the following videos, we highly recommend checking out the creators’ backlogs; there are plenty of masterpieces in the mix.
PBS Idea Channel, “Can Dungeons & Dragons Make You A Confident & Successful Person?” (October 10, 2012)
Many of the conventions of modern video essays — a charismatic quick-talking host, eye-grabbing pop culture gifs accompanying narration, and sleek edits — began with PBS Idea Channel. Idea Channel, which ran from 2012 to 2017 and produced over 200 videos, laid many of the blueprints for video essays to come. In this episode, host Mike Rugnetta dissects the practical applications of tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. The episode predates the tabletop renaissance, shepherded by Stranger Things and actual play podcasts, but gives the same level of love and appreciation the games would see in years to come.
Every Frame a Painting, “Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy” (May 26, 2014)
Like PBS Idea Channel, Every Frame a Painting was fundamental in setting the tone for video essays on YouTube. In this episode, the works of Edgar Wright (like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) are put in contrast with the trend of dialogue-based comedy films like The Hangover and Bridesmaids. The essay analyzes the lack of visual jokes in the American comedian style of comedy and shows the value of Wright’s mastery of physical comedy. The video winds up not just pointing out what makes Wright’s films so great, but also explaining the jokes in meticulous detail without ever ruining them.
Innuendo Studios, “This Is Phil Fish” (June 16, 2014)
As documented in the 2012 documentary Indie Game: The Movie and all over Twitter, game designer Phil Fish is a contentious figure, to say the least. Known for public meltdowns and abusive behavior, Phil Fish is easy to armchair diagnose, but Ian Danskin of Innuendo Studios uses this video to make something clear: We do not know Phil Fish. Before widespread discussions of parasocial relationships with online personalities, Innuendo Studios was pointing out the perils of treating semi-celebrities as anything other than strangers.
What’s So Great About That?, “Night In The Woods: Do You Always Have A Choice?” (April 20, 2017)
Player choice in video games is often emphasized as an integral facet of gameplay — but what if not having a real choice is the point? In this video, Grace Lee of What’s So Great About That? discusses how removing choice can add to a game’s narrative through the lens of sad, strange indie game Night in the Woods. What can a game with a mentally ill protagonist in a run-down post-industrial town teach us about what choices really mean, and how is a game the perfect way to depict that meaning? This video essay aims to make you see this game in a new light.
Pop Culture Detective, “Born Sexy Yesterday” (April 27, 2017)
One of the many “all killer no filler” channels on this list, Pop Culture Detective is best known as a trope namer. One of those tropes, “Born Sexy Yesterday,” encourages the audience to notice a specific, granular, but strangely prominent character trait in science fiction and fantasy: a female character who, through the conceit of the world and plot, has very little functional knowledge of the world around her, but is also a smoking hot adult. It’s sort of the reverse of the prominent anime trope of a grown woman, sometimes thousands of years old, inhabiting the body of a child. When broken down, the trope is not just a nightmare, it’s something you can’t unsee — and you start to see it everywhere.
Maggie Mae Fish, “Looking For Meaning in Tim Burton’s Movies” (April 24, 2018)
Tim Burton is an iconic example of an outsider making art for other outsiders who question and push the status quo ... right? In Maggie Mae Fish’s first video essay on her channel, she breaks down how Burton co-opts the anticapitalist aesthetics of German expressionism (most obviously, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) to give an outsider edge to films that consistently, aggressively enforce the status quo. If you’re a die-hard Burton fan, this one might sting, but Jack Skellington would be proud of you for seeking knowledge. Just kidding. He’d probably want you to take the aesthetic of the knowledge and put it on something completely unrelated, removing it of meaning.
hbomberguy, “CTRL+ALT+DEL | SLA:3” (April 26, 2018)
Are you looking for a video essay with a little more unhinged chaos energy? Prepare yourself for this video by Harry Brewis, aka hbomberguy, analyzing the webcomic CTRL+ALT+DEL, and ultimately, the infamous loss.jpg. But this essay’s also more than that; it’s a response to the criticisms of analyzing pop culture, saying that sometimes art isn’t that deep, or that works can exist outside of the perspective of the creator. This video is infamous for its climax, which we won’t spoil here, but go in knowing it’s, at the very least, adjacent to not safe for work.
Folding Ideas, “A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey” (August 31, 2018)
Speaking of not-safe-for-work, let’s talk about kink! Dan Olson of Folding Ideas has been creating phenomenal video essays for years. Highlighting “In Search of Flat Earth” as one of the best video essays in 2020 (and, honestly, ever) gives an opportunity to discuss his other masterpieces here: his three-part series dissecting the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. This introduction to the series discusses specifically the first film, and it does so in a way that is refreshingly kink-positive while still condemning the ways Fifty Shades has promoted extremely unsafe kink practices and dynamics. It also analyzes the first film with a shockingly fair lens, giving accolades where they’re due (that cinematography!) and ripping the film to shreds when necessary (what the hell are these characters?).
ToonrificTariq, “How To BLACK: An Analysis of Black Cartoon Characters (feat. ReviewYaLife)” (January 13, 2019)
While ToonrificTariq’s channel usually focuses on fantastic, engaging reviews of off-kilter nostalgic cartoons — think Braceface and As Told By Ginger — takes this video to explain the importance of writing Black characters in cartoons for kids, and not just one token Black friend per show. Through the lens of shows like Craig of the Creek and Proud Family, ToonrificTariq and guest co-host ReviewYaLife explain the way Black characters have been written into the boxes and how those tropes can be overcome by writers in the future. The collaboration between the two YouTubers also allows a mix of scripted, analytical content and some goofy, fun back-and-forth and riffing.
Jacob Geller, “Games, Schools, and Worlds Designed for Violence” (October 1, 2019)
Jacob Geller (who has written for Polygon) has this way of baking sincerity, vulnerability, and so much care into his video essays. This episode is rough, digging into what level design in war games can tell us about the architecture of American schools following the tragic Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. It’s a video essay about video games, about violence, about safety, and about childhood. It’s a video essay about what we prioritize and how, and what that priority can look like. It’s a video essay that will leave you with deep contemplation, but a hungry contemplation, a need to learn and observe more.
Accented Cinema, “Parasite: Mastering the Basics of Cinema” (November 7, 2019)
2019 Bong Joon-ho cinematic masterpiece Parasite is filled to the brim with things to analyze, but Yang Zhang of Accented Cinema takes his discussion back to the basics. Focusing on how the film uses camera positions, light, and lines, the essay shows the mastery of details many viewers might not have noticed on first watch. But once you do notice them, they’re extremely, almost comically overt, while still being incredibly effective. The way the video conveys these ideas is simple, straightforward, and accessible while still illuminating so much about the film and remaining engaging and fun to watch. Accented Cinema turns this video into a 101 film studies crash course, showing how mastery of the basics can make a film such a standout.
Kat Blaque, “So... Let’s Talk About JK Rowling’s Tweet” (December 23, 2019)
In 2020, J. K. Rowling wrote her most infamous tweet about trans people, exemplifying a debate about trans rights and identities that is still becoming more and more intense today. Rowling’s tweet was not the first, or the most important, or even her first — but it was one of the tweets about the issue that gained the most attention. Kat Blaque’s video essay on the tweet isn’t really about the tweet itself. Instead, it’s a masterful course in transphobia, TERFs, and how people hide their prejudice against trans people in progressive language. In an especially memorable passage, Blaque breaks down the tweet, line by line, phrase by phrase, explaining how each of them convey a different aspect of transphobia.
Philosophy Tube, “Data” (January 31, 2020)
One of the most underrated essays in Philosophy Tube’s catalogue, “Data” explains the importance of data privacy. Data privacy is often easily written off; “I have nothing to hide,” and “It makes my ads better,” are both given as defenses against the importance of data privacy. In this essay, though, creator Abigail Thorn breaks traditional essay form to depict an almost Plato-like philosophical dialogue between two characters: a bar patron and the bar’s bouncer. It’s also somewhat of a choose-your-own-adventure game, a post-Bandersnatch improvement upon the Bandersnatch concept.
Intelexual Media, “A Short History of American Celebrity” (February 13, 2020)
Historian Elexus Jionde of Intelexual Media has one of the strongest and sharpest analytical voices when discussing celebrity, from gossip to idolization to the celebrity industrial complex to stan culture. Her history of American celebrity is filled to the brim with information, fact following fact at a pace that’s breakneck without ever leaving the audience behind. While the video initially seems like just a history, there’s a thesis baked into the content about what celebrity is, how it got to where it is today, and where it might be going—and what all of that means about the rest of us.
Princess Weekes, “Empire and Imperialism in Children’s Cartoons—a super light topic” (June 22, 2020)
This video by Princess Weekes (Melina Pendulum) starts with a bang — a quick, goofy song followed by a steep dive into imperialization and its effect on intergenerational trauma. And then, it connects those concepts to much-beloved cartoons for kids like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Fans of shows like these may be burnt out on fandom discourse quickly saying, “thing bad!” because of how they view its stance on imperialization. Weekes, however, has always favored nuance and close reading. Her take on imperialization in cartoons offers a more complex method of analyzing these shows, and the cartoons that will certainly drum up the same conversations in the future.
Yhara Zayd, “Holes & The Prison-Industrial Complex” (July 7, 2020)
2003’s Holes absolutely rules, and Yhara Zayd’s video essay on the film shows why it isn’t just a fun classic with memorable characters. It’s also way, way more complex than most of us might remember. Like Dan Olson, Yhara Zayd appeared on our list of the best video essays of 2020, but frankly, any one of her videos could belong there or here. What makes this analysis of Holes stand out is the meticulous attention to detail Zayd has in her analysis, revealing the threads that connect the film’s commentary across its multiple interwoven plotlines. And, of course, there’s Zayd’s trademark quiet passion for the work she’s discussing, making this essay just as much of a close reading as it is a love letter to the film.
D’Angelo Wallace, “The Disappearance of Blaire White” (November 2, 2020)
D’Angelo Wallace is best known as a commentary YouTuber, someone who makes videos reacting to current events, pop culture, and, of course, other YouTubers. With his hour-long essay on YouTuber Blaire White, though, that commentary took a sharp turn into cultural analysis and introspection. For those unfamiliar with White’s work, she was once a prominent trans YouTuber known for her somewhat right-wing politics, including her discussion of other trans people. In Wallace’s video, her career is outlined — but so is the effect she had on her viewers. What is it about creators like White that makes them compelling? And what does it take for us to reevaluate what they’ve been saying?
Chromalore, “The Last Unicorn: Death and the Legacy of Fantasy” (December 3, 2020)
Chromalore is a baffling internet presence. With one video essay up, one single tweet, and a Twitter bio that simply reads, “just one (1) video essay, as a treat,” this channel feels like the analysis equivalent of seeing someone absolutely captivating at a party who you know you’ll never see again, and who you know you’ll never forget.
This video essay discusses themes of death, memory, identity, remorse, and humanity as seen through both the film and the novel The Last Unicorn. It weaves together art history and music, Christian iconography and anime-inspired character designs. It talks about why this film is so beloved and the effect it’s had on audiences today. It’s moving, deeply researched, brilliantly executed, and we will probably never see this creator again.
Khadija Mbowe, “Digital Blackface?” (December 23, 2020)
“Digital Blackface” is a term popularized by Lauren Michele Jackson’s 2017 Teen Vogue essay, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs.” The piece explains the prominence of white people using the images of Black people without context to convey a reaction, and Khadija Mbowe’s deep dive on the subject expands on how, and why, blackface tropes have evolved in the digital sphere. Mbowe’s essay involves a great deal of history and analysis, all of which is deeply uncomfortable. Consider this a content warning for depictions of racism throughout the video. But that discomfort is key to explaining why digital blackface is such a problem and how nonblack people, especially white people, can be more cognizant about how they depict their reactions online.
CJ the X, “No Face Is An Incel” (April 4, 2021)
Rounding out this list is a 2021 newcomer to video essays with an endlessly enjoyable gremlin energy that still winds up being some of the smartest, sharpest, and funniest discussions about pop culture. CJ the X, a human sableye, breaks down one of the most iconic and merch-ified Studio Ghibli characters, No Face, who is an incel. This is a video essay best experienced with no knowledge except its main thesis—that No Face is an incel—so you can sit back, be beguiled, be enraptured, and then be convinced.