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Seeing It Again Through New Eyes: Watching Reaction Videos on YouTube



SesskaSays reacts to
the Eleventh Doctor's departure on Doctor Who

One of the things I’ve missed during lockdown is watching television with other people. I have some close friends that would regularly get together to watch shows, so we could talk through whatever the hell happened on Westworld or unpack everything we feel watching June suffer over and over again on The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m used to watching television alone, too, but there’s nothing quite like having a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on.

One of the reasons or excuses I have for watching Twin Peaks countless times is that, over the years, I have introduced a lot of people to the show. I re-watch it because I love it, but I also sit there waiting for their reactions. To the end of season one or the reveal of who killed Laura Palmer. Or the season two finale. And, more recently, to see how they process Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.

Back in 2013, after the Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere” aired there was a rash of videos posted to YouTube of unsuspecting viewers reacting to the final scenes of that episode, the so-called Red Wedding. Lots of book readers knew the moment was coming, so they recorded their friends (who only watched the show) to see how they screamed or cried or freaked out at the fates of several lead characters of the series.

Two seasons earlier, when I watched the ninth episode of season one “Baelor”, my book-reading friends had the pleasure of seeing me react to a series-defining moment with the ostensible lead character of the series. I don’t exactly remember how shocked I was or maybe I was just thrilled that the show went there. Either way, I’m not sure how video-worthy my reaction might have been.

Game of Thrones had a number of shocking twists over its eight seasons and as the series progressed, based in part on the earlier shock at the Red Wedding, fans of the series recorded themselves watching every episode. They were judiciously edited to make sure HBO didn’t ping them for copyright violations, but also to edit out the bits where they just sat there, engrossed in the show.

Eventually, of course, the series would throw out more shocking moments and you can see a whole bunch of random people losing their shit over the Purple Wedding, the origins of Hodor, Jon Snow’s parentage and the fate of the Night King. That last one alone can be watched as a compilation of various people screaming, shouting with joy, punching the air and some – predictably – cursing the show for not doing what they expected.

In the past five years, Reaction Videos have become a distinct community on YouTube. Some reactors have tens of thousands of subscribers who follow them to see how they react to their favourite series. And in a time when I can’t watch television with other people, I have found myself tuning into these YouTube channels to watch other people watching television. To re-live moments of series that excited, thrilled and shocked me; to watch other people feel the same and sometimes react entirely differently.

There are certain shows that feel made for this treatment more than others. Apart from Game of Thrones¸ there are a lot of reactors who have watched or are watching Doctor Who and Buffy/Angel. (Plenty of them also watch current series like The Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D on a weekly basis; two shows I’ve never been able to get into. But it sounds like both shows are worthy of this kind of filmed reaction, too.)

It’s rare for me to watch a full episode reaction – and when I say full, I mean edited-for-YouTube. For the really hardcore fan, many of these Reactors have Patreon pages where they upload full reactions in private, so you can watch the whole episode with them, without fear of them being sued for copyright infringement.

Liam Duke reacts to Xander's yellow crayon speech
on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I tend to pinpoint moments that I want to see reactions to. The regenerations of the Doctors in Doctor Who are always fun, though very often teary. Watching parts of “Blink” maybe or the end of “Journey’s End”. My favourite in that show is the reveal of who River Song is in “A Good Man Goes to War”, because it’s fun to see who puts the clues together and whose minds just get blown.

In Buffy, it’s the episode “Passion” particularly the moment with Angel & Jenny or it’s “Hush” just to see people freak out a little or laugh at Buffy mime plunging a stake into a vampire without a stake in her hand. Or it’s numerous moments in season five, like the appearance of Dawn or the end of the finale. Or the episode “The Body”. There’s something about watching people deal with that episode that is enormously comforting and cathartic.

There are other shows that are less reacted to that I want to seek out; to see how people react to the end of the Battlestar Galactica mini-series or the “With or Without You” section of The Americans’ finale or the final moments of Fleabag season two episode three, when the sexy priest asks Fleabag where she went. That one is a niche moment, but a defining one for the show.

It’s not just TV shows that get reacted to, of course. There was recently a video that went viral of two young black men listening to “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins for the first time, which is worth watching for the late-song drum solo, of course. And a lot of people reacted to Hamilton for the first time, many of whom have never even listened to the soundtrack, let alone seen it live. It’s one thing to see people react to television, it’s another to watch people marvel over musical theatre and its stunning use of a revolve. Not the mention the lighting and the costumes and all those damn clever lyrics.

The other part of the Community are those that react to feature films. I fell into a hole watching people see to Back to the Future for the first time. Then I found reactions to The Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction. How fun it is to share people watch Clarice meet Hannibal for the first time or to see what they think of the narrative twisting in the second Tarantino film.

Part of me, of course, is shocked that there are people that haven’t seen these films before and then I have to remind myself that of course twenty-year-olds that are uploading reaction videos to YouTube haven’t seen multiple films from my childhood that was two decades before they were born. Not all YouTube reactors are young, but watching young people see Jaws or The Shining or any number of Star Wars films for the first time is really fun.

The Star Wars film reactions are in a league of their own, of course, because there are so many of them and they are so much a part of the pop-culture firmament, very few people go into these films knowing nothing about them. A lot of reactors to TV shows will start off by saying what they know about a particular series before they start. Viewers of the Star Wars films know character names and some important information, but I did watch a reaction to The Empire Strikes Back where the reactor didn’t know who Luke Skywalker’s father really was. That’s like finding a needle in a reactor haystack.

But even though most people know that tidbit, they might not know who Leia is on first viewing, they might be surprised at some of the twists in the prequels (weren’t we all!), they mostly enjoy the thrill of the (downer ending) to Rogue One and many are suitably shocked by the Han and Kylo Ren scene on the bridge in The Force Awakens.

The idea of watching people watching television seems like a strange one, even though I’m sure we’ve all done it in our own ways. Showing a film we’ve loved to a friend. Insisting they start a TV series that will change them. Playing a song in the hopes they dance with you or are thrilled by an unexpected drum solo or a low cello note.

In a time where we’re all chasing new things on Netflix or Prime or Disney+ or Stan, sometimes it’s nice to revisit old favourites with new friends, just to see how they react. And in this era of social distancing, maybe you need to watch how they react over Zoom or on YouTube.

*

Finding reactions to watch is as easy as typing in a show or a movie title and the word “reaction” into YouTube’s search function. Finding reactors worth watching is a tricker business. Some of the cream absolutely rises to the top, though; the ones with loads of followers have lots of content and that usually comes about because of memorable reactions or insightful commentary afterward.

My favourites are:

-          SesskaSays: whose journey through modern Who I’ve watched a lot of and she’s going through Classic Who now. She’s also doing Fleabag season two at the moment and her reactions to The End of the Fucking World were great

-          Liam Duke: who is now in Season 7 Buffy, which is not my favourite, but I have been watching his reactions since Season 4, so it was fun to see him react to “Hush” and “Restless” and “The Body” and “The Gift” and “Once More With Feeling” and “Seeing Red”

-          Liam Catterson: his recent run through all the Harry Potter films has been thrilling and he’s now early into season five Buffy, so it will be fun to see how he goes with that

-          My Name is Simon: I found him when he reacted to Season One of Picard and it was nice to see someone pick up on all the references in real time, when sometimes they were on the tip of my tongue (and I had to search Memory Alpha for confirmation)

-          Fail Whale 34: he’s just arrived at Jodie Whittaker’s first season of Doctor Who and is only in season two of Buffy (he’s already seen “Passion” but just wait until he gets to “Becoming”)

-          Natalie Gold: her Star Wars reactions were fun (though she’s yet to the do the sequels or the spin-off movies) and she’s also done Lord of the Rings and is starting on the Marvel movies

-          Marcos Movies: a young guy who picked what was going on with the ringing door-bell cut in The Silence of the Lambs (points to him for that), who has also reacted to Misery, Psycho, The Shining and The Wizard of Oz (totally worth it for the moment he reacts to the film turning from sepia to colour, of course)

This list changes all the time, depending on the content they are producing and what I’m interested in seeking out. Some reactors you’ll find will barely react at all. Some will be so over-the-top it’s hard to sit through. You’ll find your own favourites and stick with them or cherry pick the moments you want to see them react to and then move on.


Marcos sees Annie hobble Paul in Misery

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