One of the biggest double-edged swords of TV is “the show that can be whatever it wants to be.” Having a series without a clear anchor can be a daunting task, especially on the documentary side. Attaching the appeal of a show to a single, magnetic subject might seem like a far easier bet than building a show’s reputation on its approach to subjects.
So for “Explained,” a new co-venture between Netflix and Vox, the prospect of a new weekly documentary installment just shy of 20 minutes in length is exciting and tricky in equal measure. Without sticking to a single subject area, there’s always the difficulty in assuming the knowledge an audience is bringing to each individual episode. Factor in the impossibly vast Netflix subscriber base and that problem increases exponentially. Still, it’s a testament to “Explained” that this series stays engaging and compact as it does.
“Explained” manages to avoid patronizing that unpredictable audience, presenting historical timelines and abstract concepts in a way that viewers can choose to digest however they wish. Weaving through disparate subjects like monogamy, the racial wealth gap, and K-pop, the series adopts some of the visual language of a viral social media post while adding a breadth of reporting and research that keeps each episode from becoming a primer that’s merely lovely to look at.
To adjust to each topic, “Explained” employs a noteworthy changing roster of narrators. Blending guidance from Vox staffers and notable guest hosts (Samira Wiley and Maria Bello lend their voices to early episodes), these installments foreground the issue at hand, rather than let it get overshadowed by the packaging. Some doc series can lean heavily into on-screen text and graphics — “Explained” has its share of each, but that combination comes from a more organic place.
It helps that, in addition to the narrator for each episode, “Explained” lets the topic guide its contributors. In a discussion of monogamy, a series of couples discuss their respective long-term relationships, all connected by a “When Harry Met Sally”-style series of stories about how they met. (In an indicative move, the series also moves past those origin stories to have these respective partners talk about how their relationship has changed and persisted in the years since.) Scholars, elected officials, scientists, editors, and inventors all combine to give “Explained” a baseline authority while still catering to a number of different kinds of learning styles. An upcoming episode even crowdsources information from a global testimonial network, all to emphasize the impact of the subject in question.
As a co-production with Vox, it also makes sense that “Explained” approaches each subject through a heavy media lens. In most cases, these episodes aren’t just an understanding of a particular topic, it’s an examination of how those topics are funneled into an ever-evolving news landscape. Even in the selection of different clips, you can see over the course of a single montage how one term or fad can go from something that fascinates reporters to something that mildly exasperates them. (See: “…designer babies…”)
That emphasis on media is something that’s run through the audio world, whether it’s the way podcasts look back on seminal chapters in presidential history or daily news. Studio anchors of the day become the de facto gatekeepers of the prevailing wisdom of the time. “Explained” adds in archival news reports of white homeowners expressing concern over the value of their property after neighborhoods integrate and interviews with disability activists wary of the effects of genetic modification, showing that it’s not just the issues themselves that are important. It’s how people respond to them.
“Explained” is proof that sleek and well-produced content like this doesn’t always have to be watered down. It’s possible to make something that’s engaging on a sensory level without robbing those visuals of meaning. And “Explained” is a series that requests (and in its more complex explanations, demands) viewers’ attention. Although these are compact deliveries of information, there’s a density in each subject that rewards a close watching of how the different elements of each topic interact with each other.
That versatility and speed of watching is also tricky. The same thing that keeps this series fresh and cycling through these wide-ranging topics also limits how comprehensive it can be. As a piece of self-contained content (whether for entertainment or an information source), “Explained” works better as a stepping stone towards a broader understanding of the issue. In an attempt to tackle the entirety of an issue, some areas that deserve closer scrutiny occasionally get short shrift.
This show existing on Netflix presents another unique issue: Without a set airdate, how close to the present should these episodes stick? But another common theme through these “Explained” episodes is that we don’t know what will happen next. The show is built on the idea that the best way to understand how things might change in the future is to get a firm grasp on what’s happening now. So, in a way, when there’s an inevitable development in CRISPR technology or a case related to redlining comes before the Supreme Court or a federal housing body, these handy overviews are available as a handy refresher course.
It’s not a revolutionary idea, but this explainer model has specific value in a growing, search-based relationship to knowledge that produces bite-sized understandings of vast-reaching concepts. That may sound like a reductive way to describe what this show is doing, but the final product does an effective job of bringing meaningful order to a premise that could have been dominated by randomness. These explanations may not make you an expert, but there’s certainly a place for sparking a tiny flame of understanding where there otherwise might not have been one.
The first three episodes of “Explained” are now available to stream on Netflix. Additional episodes will be added weekly.