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Making Sense of the World with ‘Explained’

Series Review

A still from "Monogamy," the third episode of "Explained" on Netflix.

“Explained,” the weekly informational Netflix show produced by Vox Media, is both nothing new and an interesting development in the ever more varied field of television. It is the big-budget brother of the short-form, informational, mini-documentaries that make up much of Vox’s YouTube presence, but the change in platform and production value makes “Explained” a very different animal from the majority of Vox’s output. With each episode running between 15 and 20 minutes, these are far from full-length documentaries. But with more runtime, “Explained” can handle bigger topics—the racial wealth gap, the stock market, and the female orgasm, for instance—and provide fuller coverage than the YouTube videos.

The purpose of an “Explained” episode is neatly captured by the title: Each one tries to download enough information on a hot topic for you to sound smart, or at least not asinine, at a party—all in about the time it takes for you to make and eat a sandwich. The choice of subjects aligns well with this attitude, and they tend to fall into three categories: things you’ve always wondered about (“Can We Live Forever?”, “Extraterrestrial Life,” “Why Diets Fail”), things you definitely should know about (“The World's Water Crisis,” “Why Women Are Paid Less,” “The Racial Wealth Gap"), and semi-opaque aspects of culture and technology (“Political Correctness,” “eSports,” “K–Pop”).

For the most part, Vox chooses their topics wisely. Only one episode—“Exclamation Mark (!)”—thus far has seemed fully trivial, giving an only somewhat engaging history of a minor piece of punctuation. The episode redeems itself somewhat by examining the gendered role the exclamation mark plays in workplace communication, but it still stands out as the only clearly lacking episode.

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This is in large part because “Explained” does what it sets out to do almost flawlessly. The episodes feel longer than they are due to the sheer amount of information in them, but, impressively, are more refreshing than dull. The cast of (mostly) celebrity narrators range in quality—Kyle MacLachlan is charming even while informing you of the horrific effects of water shortages—but all serve amiably well. Stylistically, the show follows the modern, fairly banal standard for documentaries, but does it very slickly, with well-designed graphics and music that is catchy, but never dominant. The title sequence, specially designed for each episode, deserves a special mention for being able to pack in a huge amount of history, diversity of thought, and imagery related to the topic in a short amount of time. The best way to sum up the show is that it is cleanly and stylishly effective.

Besides its content, the most interesting aspect of “Explained” is just how different it feels from Vox’s YouTube content. More so than even the expanded budget, the change in platform dramatically affects the tenor of the show, granting it more legitimacy. “Explained” feels like something one could (and possibly should) seek out in an effort to be a more informed person, albeit with limited time. The Vox YouTube channel, as with nearly everything else on YouTube, has a thin veneer of guilty pleasure to it, something “Explained” has avoided. Vox may have shown the way forward for other media companies hoping to bridge the gap—one could imagine, say, the New York Times having its own Netflix show (it may be a few years before The Crimson gets one). “Explained” both creates a niche and fills it out nicely, and as more episodes come out every week, it may provide an interesting example of the future of televised news.

—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at ethan.reichsman@thecrimson.com.

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