I never knew that society’s most banal mediocrities, oddities and failures needed a deadpan vlogger as its cheerleader. Then I started watching Philip Solo on YouTube.
At first glance, the cherubic young man with the troll-doll hair seems an unlikely documentarian of the human condition. His monotone punchlines won’t quicken your pulse, and there’s basically no production value to speak of in his videos. (Tony Bourdain, this ain’t.) And yet I’ve stumbled head over heels into his universe of “worst” videos, where he “reviews” the poorest-rated establishments in his city of Edmonton. It quickly became clear that Solo has curated a lifetime’s worth of human stories, all narrated in his nasally tenor drone.
His “worst-rated” series is, in essence, a Sisyphean task with a masochistic edge. There exists a nearly infinite pool of shitty businesses and restaurants in the world. Solo peeks into this void by choosing the one most eviscerated by society (at least according to Yelp and Google) for closer inspection. On his journey, he carries the burden of anyone who has ever asked, “How the hell can a place with 1 star still exist?” Witness as he gags his way through a greasy, $15 hill of kale that the owner describes ceremoniously as being sauced with “nothing, it’s just kale.” Consider his turmoil as he gets a droopy-looking haircut from the “worst” barber in the city.
You might think there are only tragic conclusions to be found in this journey — that economic anxiety pushes people to rip off others, that humans are inherently lazy or that some people just, like, really suck at what they do. I did, in my initial binges of Solo’s works. How could these establishments survive? Did they possibly deserve to remain? And was Solo, and therefore I as the viewer, just reveling in the broken souls behind all the moldy sushi and filthy motels of the world?
I’m not sure at what point I started to see a different argument emerge — not one of cruelty, but of acknowledgment. Like that barber who gave Solo the haircut he (and his girlfriend) hated: That guy seemed, in Solo’s own words, “really nice.” The cut was affordable. And despite all those bad reviews, Solo’s viewers couldn’t help but point out the barber did a pretty okay job. These “worst-rated” videos aren’t always, or even mostly, about genuine failure. It’s about mediocrity — in all its forms and attitudes. And sometimes that mediocrity is an illusion woven by the initial judgments of faceless reviewers, who come in with their own biases or simply struggle to understand what to expect. It seems to be the case with this “worst-rated tattoo” joint that’s pretty far from terrible.
There is some sort of strange heartwarming sensation that comes from seeing someone earnestly consider a person or product that the rest of us wouldn’t ponder with any sort of depth. And Solo’s calm assessment of everything from bad food to seriously sketchy handjob parlors becomes an asset amid the chaos of grossness. Like David Attenborough, his secret is an understated energy that makes the rare snaps of surprised, disgusted energy all the funnier. I see a strong philosophical parallel between Solo and the suit-wearing fast-food reviewer extraordinaire known as “The Report of the Week” (aka “Reviewbrah” among fans). The latter is an oddly ageless looking dude who tastes with the meticulous, intellectual pace of a Michelin Guide fine-dining critic. Why would he give so many fucks about a new chicken sandwich from Carl’s Jr.? Why would anyone give a single fuck about the worst rated restaurant in a city?
The answer, of course, is Solo’s own curiosity and boldness. He’s an uncredited pioneer of the “worst-rated” subgenre of YouTube videos, which is a landscape rife with bullshit-y clickbait and fake interactions with “businesses” that don’t exist. I don’t sense any deception in Solo’s stuff, especially because of the way he approaches people on his channel, whether it’s a sex worker, a poor person on the street or the chef of the worst sushi restaurant in Edmonton. His fans see it, too.
“I love Phillip Solo [sic]. Because you know what he does? He does what Jesus would do. He reaches out to the people that would normally be ‘rejected’ by society or frowned upon for their lifestyle and he shows the world their humanity,” writes one commenter. “He shows them love and empathy and generosity, all while entertaining us and them. It took me a while to realize it, to be honest, because I found myself judging the people in the videos subconsciously, but I keep watching and I keep feeling so much respect for these people as individuals and for Phillip [sic] for sharing the love of a true saint. Thank you, sir.”
A comparison to Jesus is pretty heady stuff, but the more than 4,000 likes on that comment makes a point. And it looks like Solo himself is thriving off this content; fans note that he looks healthier and less strung-out compared to his earliest videos. Looking ahead, he seems to have genuine interest in continuing to uncover the lives of people and spaces we tend to ignore; stunts like getting a homeless guy a hotel room (and potentially a job) only stop feeling like stunts when you realize the earnest energy at work.
Surviving in today’s world is long, boring, backbreaking work. Solo doesn’t shy away from that reality. But to revel in the little surprises and inexplicable humor of mediocrity feels like a respite from the big ideas and even bigger achievement that society often demands.
He is, as one viewer puts it, the “definition of chaotic good.”