The Art of Geeking Out: What Jenny Nicholson Gets Right
I watch Jenny Nicholson explain the intricacies of the 8-season teen-vampire-romance CW show The Vampire Diaries in a YouTube video that lasts more than two hours, trying to figure out how she’s able to pull it off, how exactly she makes it work. She covers everything, leaving no stone unturned, from the history of the book series on which the show is based on to even an obscure point-and-click video game from the mid-1990s also based on the book series. Sections are devoted to the titular diaries, problems that arose once main character Elena (Nina Dobrev) left the show and even the show’s underlying racism.
Her concern isn’t just for ranking characters or to feature highlights from the show’s run, but things she personally associates with watching The Vampire Diaries. My favorite running gag in the video involves Jenny recounting that when she first started watching the series, a commercial for the first-season DVD release of Vietnam-set TV drama China Beach (which, for those unfamiliar, is from the 80s) was the only one that played. She is so fascinated by this that she even records herself reciting all the commercial’s dialogue and places it over the ad itself. (That video is the pinned tweet on her Twitter, @jennyenicholson, and is worth checking out.) Whenever she inserts the ad into the natural commercial breaks during The Vampire Diaries, it’s funny because it highlights Jenny’s unique, individual experience. This is how she relates to it, this is how she’s choosing to convey it to you.
I have never seen an episode of The Vampire Diaries, nor have I ever wanted to watch an episode of it in my life. But somehow, Jenny’s two-and-a-half-long hour diatribe about the show is a video I have enjoyed watching and coming back to. And I think that speaks to her strengths as someone who conveys knowledge in an easily-accessible and mostly-comedic format.
Nicholson is a YouTuber who has emerged as an unexpected favorite of mine. I enjoy her in-depth recaps and breakdowns, filled with knowledge that can only come from the legitimate passion and fandom of a true geek. She first emerged on the scene about 5 years ago, mostly doing shorter videos about Star Wars-related topics (a favorite topic of hers) and playing “script doctor” to various failed projects like Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, Jenny has been able to find a niche, and in it, I believe she has found not just one that serves her interests, personality, and sense of humor well, but one that could be indicative of the very nature, possible even the future, of geekdom.
She usually reports from her room, covered with various stuffed animals and other pop-culture ephemera. One of her videos chronicled her, a self-professed spider-aficionado, adding a giant stuffed spider based on Aragog from Harry Potter to her collection. Jenny herself looks like the type of girl who probably would’ve dressed up as Hermione at least one year for Halloween growing up, possibly even before the movies came out. Geeking out with a friend in their bedroom predated the pandemic, but there’s something almost nostalgic about that in this socially-distanced new reality we all collectively find ourselves in.
She wears her nerdy bona fides on her sleeve, some of the fandoms she has been a part of include the infamous “Brony” subculture that emerged around the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic kids cartoon, which she chronicles her involvement with in another one of her videos. She has even been featured in the work of other YouTubers, as she has voiced controversial “omegaverse” fanfiction author Addison Caine in a series of videos produced by fellow video-essayist Lindsay Ellis.
But when I consider how she is able to do what she pulls off in these videos, I think it comes down to authenticity. Jenny’s not pretentious, and there never seems to be an agenda there, beyond mere nerdy enthusiasm. This is relatively unique in the film-YouTube environment, where it feels like most people either have an agenda, are trying to convince you that the thing you liked is actually bad, or are projecting overtly-didactic political meaning onto movies that don’t deserve it.
In contrast, Jenny is knowledgeable, passionate, and goes all out, which is fun to watch. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I strive for a similar level of completism as she does in my own personal pop-culture endeavors. There’s even a sort of conversing, conversational element to her content, it’s like being on the receiving end of a friend’s passionate tirades, but you’re not expected to be as responsive. It’s something that has elements of things we’ve seen before (stand-up, online movie reviews, and breakdowns), but she seems to be able to synthesize it in bold, exciting new ways.
A staple of Jenny’s is what she calls a “nice, Internet-friendly numbered list,” and here, I will abide by that tradition by listing my top 3 favorite of her videos.
“WHERE’S BUZZY? The Great Animatronic Caper” (February 12, 2019)
One of Jenny’s geekiest interests that she indulges in on her channel are amusement parks, particularly Disney parks. In another video I enjoy, she goes on a long explanation about the history of and her own personal trip to Pandora – The World of Avatar, an immersive section of Walt Disney World, Orlando based on James Cameron’s 2009 mega-blockbuster movie of the same name. Another video was, I believe, intended to be a prelude about the context and background for her trip to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new Star Wars-based attraction at Disney parks. Funnily enough, I don’t believe she ever got around to making the promised longer follow-up video to it.
As someone who always wanted to but never got to go to the Disney parks as a kid, I find her level of devotion to and fascination with them to be very genuine and heartfelt. She even mentions that she worked for a time at one of the Disney parks. My favorite video focusing on this favorite subject of hers’ is one wherein she recounts the story of Buzzy, who used to be a featured animatronic in the Wonders of Life pavilion at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT section. Buzzy was the host of “Cranium Command,” a humorous but educational presentation on the human brain. Buzzy’s job within the show was, as Jenny explains, “to make everything go smoothly in this day of the life of an adolescent boy.” (One of the people who worked on Cranium Command, Pete Docter, would later reincorporate this idea when writing the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out.) The show opened in 1989, closed in 2007, but still remained accessible afterward to so-called “urban explorers” who explore abandoned spaces. As such, Buzzy was one of a handful of items that was eventually stolen from the old Cranium Command show.
Jenny breaks down various theories as to what she thinks happened to Buzzy (whom she adorably refers to simply as “the boy”), as well as a breakdown so thorough, it includes the background and physical history of the pavilion itself. It’s also the deepest dive into a criminal investigation since the first season of Serial, with Jenny herself becoming a pop-culture answer to Sarah Koenig. In fact, I dare Koenig to come up with as many theft scenarios for Buzzy as Jenny laid out. Also, I love how she talks about the Disney Archives (“they’re not open to the public; if they were, I would live there”), it’s the same way I do about the Library of Congress Packard Campus.
“I’m on lockdown so I watched all 14 Land Before Times” (May 28, 2020)
Everyone had that pop culture that they gravitated towards during pandemic times. (Personally, it was animated Batman movies and Kevin Smith comedy specials.) Jenny, ever nostalgic, covers what she got into during quarantine: The Land Before Time series of animated movies based around kid dinosaur characters and adventures, which were a kids-entertainment staple throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The first one, simply called The Land Before Time (1988), was directed by acclaimed animator Don Bluth and is also the only one to be released theatrically. It is remembered by most millennials as a classic, though Jenny does eventually take a little bit of an issue with its considerable reputation. What followed were 13 direct-to-video sequels, spanning from 1994 up to 2016, that were all musicals despite the first installment not being one. But the direct-to-video market for kids was an important niche in that era, and animated sequels in particular could be churned out at a regular pace. (I know my poor parents suffered a million trips to Blockbuster and Hollywood Video back in the bygone era before streaming).
I myself saw maybe the first half-dozen Land Before Time movies, and have some positive memories associated with watching them. While recuperating from what she believed was COVID (but couldn’t get tested for) early in the pandemic, Jenny binged the series and ranks all of them accordingly. While taking on this completest task, she talks about highlights of the series, which include both Kiefer Sutherland’s role as series protagonist Littlefoot’s father and a new character Jenny particularly loves, a baby T-Rex named Chomper.
Low points include goofy sidekick characters with names like the Tinysauruses, Fooby the Yellow-Belly, Wild Arms, Uncle Pterano, and Guido the Microraptor; a guest appearance by country music star Reba McEntire; and a voice actor who had clearly aged out of the role of Littlefoot still performing. Yup, it is as cringe-inducing as you’re imagining. (Thank goodness said voice-actor, Thomas Dekker, went on to star in one of my favorite cult shows of all time: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.) There’s even an actual appearance of extraterrestrials in the series, and the clip Jenny shares of them singing something called “Beyond the Mysterious Beyond” to Littlefoot can’t help but remind me of the “Goodbye, Moonmen” song from Rick & Morty. Series tropes include enemies being defeated via rocks being pushed on their heads, characters falling into slime or goo, and plotlines that serve as metaphors for racism.
When expressing her overall thoughts on the series, Jenny says “In a way, I look at Land Before Time movies not as movies which entertain you, but as tutorials for children of how to play Land Before Time with your friends.” She elaborates later on, saying that if one looks “at that era of direct-to-video Disney sequel films, and they’re all cashing in on the success of the original film,” whereas the Land Before Time franchise “just seems to cash in on the concept of dinosaurs, and trusting that kids love dinosaurs.” I like her wanting to be so comprehensive about the franchise, it reminds me of my affinity for the Friday the 13th series.
“Oh no! The Rise of Skywalker was real bad :(” (December 29, 2019)
One of the big disappointments of 2019 was obviously Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. What was meant to be the ninth installment and ultimate conclusion to the venerated space-opera franchise instead was a befuddled mess, overstuffed and overcompensating, the result of studio interference and lack of a clear vision that endeared a majority of moviegoers to Episode IX’s two predecessors. Being a Star Wars uber-nerd herself, Jenny breaks down her problems with the film.
Jenny did a similar breakdown after Solo was released in the summer of 2018, and that video felt cathartic at the time. Similarly, it didn’t feel like I knew how exactly to articulate my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker until this video debuted. Everything is covered, from even its opening crawl to the movie’s implication that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) “made” the series’ previous big-bad, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); from the unfulfilled emotional potential of Chewbacca’s death (that was ultimately revealed in the movie to be a fake-out in what Jenny calls a “contrived switch-a-roo”) to the serious retcon of having Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents, as Kylo Ren states, having “sold [her] to protect [her],” which Jenny calls “the worst line in the whole movie”; from the weirdness of Rey being able to identify a specific mass-produced spaceship (which Jenny compares to a blue Honda Civic) to awkward efforts to have Finn (John Boyega) be both in love with Rey (while never admitting to it) and sensitive to The Force.
Having a breakdown of the movie’s problems this thorough is an asset, it reminds you how much fundamentally about it just did not work. She starts off the video by saying that it was difficult to even know where to begin, there were so many “questionable decisions,” and that ultimately, she “just wanted to talk about all the dumb stuff that happened.” For example, she calls the plot element of Rey being the granddaughter of Palpatine “the most unforgivingly stupid thing in [the] movie.” She concludes by saying that the “whole film is just a weird checklist of things that are meant to satisfy Star Wars fans, but none of them are covered in a satisfying way, they’re just passionlessly recited to us.”
The only gripe I have with the video is that she doesn’t mention the best thing about the movie: the strange mechanic-alien character Babu Frik, who has become beloved at my house due to his eerie resemblance to my father. Even Patrick Willems agrees about the greatness of Babu Frik!
If you’re looking for fun videos to binge during quarantine and Netflix just won’t do it anymore, particularly for millennials of a certain age, I recommend Jenny’s videos. Some of them I’m more enthusiastic about than others (while I’m all about promoting reading, I could take or leave it whenever she reviews a book, to be honest), but all of them are imparted with the same level of authenticity that is, at the end of the day, fundamentally, uniquely Jenny Nicholson.
Jenny, if you happen to be reading this, first of all, hi! Big fan! Second, you constantly drop Alex Mack references in your vids. It is one of my nostalgic favs, as well! As a fellow 90s kid, I would love you to do something about it, or better yet, this sad, pathetic, coked-out reunion that the cast had a few years back…?