Vox started in 2014 as a website with an expressed goal in providing in-depth explanations of the biggest news stories of the day. One of the key features of Vox are their explainers, comprised of detailed rundowns of news stories point by point. That concept of explaining news stories and exploring why they matter and how they affect people is the central idea behind Explained, a new documentary series from Vox in conjunction with Netflix. Over the four episodes available for review, Explained establishes itself as a fascinating series that explores a variety of topics. Each episode of Explained runs around 20 minutes, meaning that the series works as a primer to its selected topics although it’s suprisingly in-depth for its running time.
The four episodes of Explained that I was able to view tackled quite a range of topics – K-pop, designer DNA, monogamy, and the racial wealth gap. The episodes utilize archival footage, interviews with experts, and plenty of charts and graphs to back up whatever points are being asserted by either the narrator or interview subjects.
Explained doesn’t just look at its given issues from its modern context. The series is heavily invested in illustrating how events of the past shape the modern debates and analysis of its chosen topic. Therein lies some of the more fascinating aspects that arise in Explained – just how did these matters come into being. How did a cultural phenomenon arise from a rigid, government-controlled culture? How did humans betray natural instinct to promote monogamous relationships? How does generations of institutional racism lead to a wage gap that persists today? How did the mapping of the human genome create a set of incredible possibilities and a set of ethical dilemmas?
The biggest praise I can put upon Explained that I was captivated by the content of each episode I viewed and feel that I have a better grasp of the issues presented thanks to the brief, informative nature of the show. By no means is the information daunting to casual viewers and it’s presented in a lively manner that remains entertaining while being informative.
The biggest problem facing Explained is a problem that is plaguing media on all levels – that’s the hyper-partisan nature of modern politics. The episode on the racial wealth gap looks at an issue that doesn’t get much play in the media, but those who need to be swayed on the topic are the ones likely to simply ignore or write off the information conveyed because it’s politically inconvenient. I do believe that maybe some of Explained can get around that by its willingness to explore a diverse range of topics, so maybe somebody interested in designer DNA and genetic editing might happen upon a topic that they’re unexpectedly swayed on.
Just because a group of people might not be willing to accept the well-researched, well-sourced information of Explained doesn’t mean that its existence is not vital. Netflix and the other streaming services have a documentary problem. In their constant search for content, Netflix and its competitors have scooped up a number of dubious documentaries and perpetuated the spread of misleading and outright false information. Explained won’t mitigate the damage caused by the proliferation of these unscrupulous pieces of documentary filmmaking, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The power of factual information has taken a hit in recent years. Ideologically slanted media (mainly on the conservative side but liberals are just as susceptible) has made it easy for people to remain in echo chambers, safely insulated from uncomfortable information. Not every issue is binary – it’s not simply left/right or right/wrong. There’s complexity to the origins of every issue. There are shades to morality, and political thinking on every topic aims to make anything black and white. Explained will never be a substitute for in-depth reading and reporting, but it’s a densely informative documentary series with the ability to disrupt the echo chambers that dominate the discourse.
Explained debuts exclusively on Netflix on Wednesday, May 23rd.