I have never seen an episode of The Vampire Diaries. But I have watched Jenny Nicholson’s 153-minute-long video essay about it, which has given me more information on the entire eight-season series than I ever could have wanted to know. I’m also convinced it has provided me far more entertainment than the show possibly could have.
Nicholson’s Vampire Diaries video is neatly broken up into 28 different sections, in which she walks through topics including the lore, the book series, characters she doesn’t like, villains, and, my personal favorite, the random insertion of main cast member Candice King performing musical numbers on the show. Even with a nearly three-hour runtime, I couldn’t stop watching the video. And I’m not alone: Since Nicholson uploaded it in early 2021, the video has been viewed more than 9 million times.
Nicholson’s intensive breakdown video—among several she's made—inspired other YouTubers to follow suit. That includes Mike’s Mic (real name Michael Messineo), who’s recapped Pretty Little Liars over the course of three “appropriately unhinged” videos exceeding a combined six hours and 10 million views. His videos recount the show’s plot episode by episode, and I ate it up: the absolute whiplash of the plot twists, the disappointment of the false leads, and the hilariousness of those cringeworthy lines of dialogue.
It’s Messineo’s commentary that makes these videos so worth it. He refers to characters as “detective crust lord,” “felon of the century,” “toxic flop,” and even “galactic-threat-level menace.” He frequently compares series antagonist Jenna Marshall to Marvel supervillain Thanos—even though she is far from the worst antagonist on Pretty Little Liars which I now know because I’ve seen the entirety of this detailed plot overview. At one point, Messineo dons a blond wig, a pink cowboy hat, and a yellow Minions shirt, and says, “If you ever wanted to take a screenshot of one of my videos as proof of where a master’s degree gets you, now’s the time.”
Another YouTuber whose essays millions of people love is Quinton Reviews, who’s uploaded videos about the Nickelodeon shows iCarly and Victorious. His two Victorious videos together surpass 13 hours in length and 10 million views. Then there’s Billiam’s nearly 3-hour long Lost video, which has 1.7 million views. Friendly Space Ninja makes videos about current and older TV shows, like Teen Wolf, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Bridgerton ranging from 8 to 160 minutes in length. His most popular upload is a 25-minute video essay on Emily in Paris, which has garnered nearly 8 million views. But his even longer videos do well too, like a 67-minute video on The Flash, which has upwards of 3 million views. These videos provide some combination of summary, analysis, commentary, review, context and lots of humor, but most of all give you an efficient and very fun way of learning about these very popular yet very lengthy shows.
For the most part, these creators make the unwieldy plots a lot more easier to digest. It’s like Cliff Notes but with comedy—and also they’re about mediocre pop culture instead of respected literature. (And also, I don’t actually need to know anything about these shows. What am I preparing for? The unlikely event in which I find myself in a conversation involving Lost, a show I, a 25-year-old, have only seen one episode of? Being quizzed about Gossip Girl during a trivia night or something?) But these videos have become their own form of entertainment, and once I start watching, it’s very hard for me to stop. I need to know which wild direction the series evolved in, and I must find out how the show ended after all those plot twists, at all costs.
It’s not just TV series and franchises, though. Plenty of YouTubers make longform videos about countless topics, including books, video games, memes, fan culture, and even things as specific as Disney’s amusement park service FastPass. Even as TikTok and Instagram have popularized short-form content, YouTube videos have gotten longer and longer over time. Google prioritizes watch time in its YouTube success metrics, encouraging creators to push their runtimes further and further—and fans are here for it. And plus, longer videos mean more ads, and more ads mean that creators earn more revenue.
But what’s in it for the fans? Part of the appeal is the ever-lucrative nostalgia factor. These video essays tend to focus on popular, long-running shows from the 2000s and 2010s, which were marketed towards teens— they’re the shows we grew up on. But they also succeed at capturing a bygone era of television. Thanks to the nature of streaming and marathon viewing, shows now run for far fewer seasons. And those seasons are much shorter too; many of them don't even run for more than 10 episodes each.
Meanwhile, Pretty Little Liars, a cable TV show, had 160 episodes over seven seasons; broadcast hit The Vampire Diaries wrapped after 171 episodes. That’s also some of the appeal of these long YouTube videos: It takes longer to watch half a season of Pretty Little Liars than it does to watch Messineo’s recap of the entire seven seasons. And after powering through recaps of shows I didn’t watch as a teen, I now feel like I’ve caught up on a piece of my generation’s pop culture I missed out on—or now I know I didn’t miss out on much to begin with.
The now absurd-seeming length of the shows YouTubers tend to focus on also lent them their ridiculousness. As Messineo points out in one of his Pretty Little Liars videos, “I’d say [Pretty Little Liars] would have benefited from having 12-episode seasons,” as opposed to each season having at least 20 episodes each. That would have tightened the storylines up, he argues, since there are a lot of red herrings, plot holes, and dangling threads that are mentioned and never picked up again. The plots start out convoluted and chaotic, and they only get more so. But it’s that ridiculousness that makes these video essays so fun to watch—especially when you’re just hearing someone sum it up quickly, getting the bullet points of the story and the creators’ reactions instead of sitting through it yourself.
But at the same time, these video essays are rarely mean-spirited take-downs. “I feel like whenever I do see people speaking critically of [The Vampire Diaries], it’s not about any of these legitimate reasons,” Nicholson said in her video. “It’s not even about the cheesy dialogue or the bizarre plots or the characters they hate, because none of them have ever even watched a moment of it. It’s just because it’s a romance-based show for teenage girls.”
Watching these incredibly long, dense video recaps wouldn’t be as enjoyable to the average viewer if the YouTubers didn’t show genuine love for the shows they’re talking about. And it takes dedication to watch all of those episodes. Their sense of fandom comes across, but they’re also able to consistently poke fun at and acknowledge the flaws of the shows. (That includes their problematic aspects like inappropriate relationships between adults and minors, which many of these teen dramas had.)
With feature-length runtimes, there’s room for pros, cons and deeper discussions in these videos, and you get to hear from fans-turned-experts what worked and what didn’t. These YouTubers were invested in the shows they’re talking about; in fact, some of them even present ideas for how they would have improved them. (What if Bonnie and Damon got together? What if Aria became A?) And because these shows—from Vampire Diaries to Glee to iCarly—were popular and beloved by so many people in their day, newcomers gain some insight into why people loved them so much. And even if you get to the end and you still don’t understand the hype, at least you’ll have had a good laugh.