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Explainer Shows, Explained: A Brief Survey of the New Streaming Subgenre

With a debt to PBS and ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,’ the Explainer Show aims to teach millennials about stuff—and go viral in the process

Netflix/Amazon/Ringer illustration

The blurred line between information and entertainment is arguably responsible for the current, highly distressed state of our democracy. The flip side of the entertainment-inflected news that currently dictates the president’s Twitter feed, however, is the wave of news-inflected entertainment that’s slowly remade audiences’ expectations for unscripted, or rather less conventionally scripted, programming. Jon Stewart’s incarnation of The Daily Show started the domino chain, using a news-shaped half-hour to parody the news in an uroboros of satire. Gradually, Stewart’s influence began to radiate outward, a brush fire with the 2016 election as its accelerant. Stephen Colbert made The Daily Show for punditry with The Colbert Report, then applied that experience to The Late Show; Samantha Bee infused Full Frontal with feminine rage; Seth Meyers may not have graduated from Stewart’s talent farm, but much of Late Night now carries his influence, as does the post-Meyers version of SNL’s Weekend Update.

In recent years, this distinct category has grown an even narrower subgroup. The core idea remains in place: wrapping factoids in punch lines can make them more palatable, while giving them a more explicit point of view can make their biases more transparent. But rather than responding to a given news cycle’s headlines, these series prefer to choose their battles. They want to start a conversation, not join one. And because they’re deliberately choosing subjects that aren’t already on viewers’ minds, they take on the initial burden of introducing them to their audience. Call it the Explainer Show.

The Explainer Show fulfills more or less the same purpose as a specialized news report or a PBS special, and as such is targeted at the demographic least likely to consume said show as part of their media diets: millennials. They’re collections of digestible, detailed-but-not-too-detailed looks at a broad range of fields, and they scratch two seemingly opposite itches at once: on the one hand, the comfort-food effect of tuning out the latest sign of the apocalypse; on the other, the nutrition of feeding your brain on a steady stream of trivia. Predictably, the genre has thrived on cable and streaming, following their viewership to new platforms. In between Sesame Street and the latest Ken Burns documentary, there’s the Explainer Show.

The undisputed leader of this category, with three consecutive writing and series Emmys to show for it, is John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. The weekly HBO series dedicates the first few minutes of its runtime to the news, but Last Week’s bread and butter is the supersized single-topic segment that takes up the back two-thirds or so of any given episode. Shrewdly, HBO consistently makes these diatribes available for free on YouTube, where they disseminate across the internet and into the wider culture. Despite their 15-to-25-minute length, practically feature-length by online standards, each one reliably gets a few million views, with the most popular reaching well into the eight figures.

Initially, Oliver’s selections were deliberately obscure. Last Week’s first season, in 2014, included explorations of net neutrality and civil asset forfeiture, deliberately wonky subjects Oliver seemed to relish the challenge of making compelling to a general audience. Winking, attention-getting devices like a dog Supreme Court became staples of the show’s storytelling over time; the dog court is now a veritable menagerie, thanks to the addition of a lobster (to represent Neil Gorsuch) and Gritty (Brett Kavanaugh). Over time, Oliver has conceded to the pressures of topicality, and the show’s single most popular explainer remains its mid-campaign spotlight on one Donald J. Trump. Even if you aren’t one of the 35 million people who pressed play, you’ve probably heard “Drumpf” used as an epithet.

Still, the tone of Last Week Tonight remains one of helpful interjection. Oliver frequently uses status as a non-American to turn his focus to international issues, having dedicated no fewer than three full-length segments to the impending Brexit. The show’s latest episode-within-an-episode, a meditation on public shaming, took a heated debate and offered an unusually measured middle ground between “mob rule” and “Twitter is bad because it’s mean to me personally.” Even Oliver’s guest, Monica Lewinsky, came off as self-aware and willing to laugh at her own, deeply traumatic history. In its half-decade on the air, Last Week Tonight has become the model for subsequent Explainer Shows: in depth, wide focus, and as interested in familiarizing viewers with its subjects as commenting on them.

With his Netflix show Patriot Act, fellow Daily Show alum Hasan Minhaj streamlined the format even further. The transition of late-night-style comedy to streaming, with its absence of time slots or commercial breaks, has been an awkward one; Netflix cancelled Michelle Wolf’s more traditionally styled The Break after just 10 episodes. Minhaj has succeeded by fitting his show into a template that’s already been proven to do well on the internet. Every episode of Patriot Act is essentially the part of Last Week Tonight that dependably goes viral, stripped of the extra bits. Averaging around 24 minutes apiece, Patriot Act installments have honed in on issues as specific as the streetwear brand Supreme and student-loan servicers.

Like Oliver, Minhaj allows his background to inform his perspective, dedicating his most recent episode to Indian elections and opening the series with a bromide against a lawsuit challenging affirmative action led by a group of Asian Americans. (Jokes about Indian bidets and intrusive uncles are freely dispersed throughout even unrelated episodes.) In addition to dispensing with extraneous, perfunctory, and easily dated news banter, Patriot Act’s chief innovation is its stage, which takes Minhaj out from behind a static desk and allows him to roam around what’s basically a giant screen. The pilot pre-empted any potential clowning by describing the setup as a PowerPoint directed by Michael Bay, a self-inflicted own yet to be outdone by any would-be critics. So far, Patriot Act’s success indicates the Explainer Show is versatile enough to replicate and adapt beyond Oliver’s initial foray. Netflix may not disclose ratings, but its initial 30-plus episode order indicates a long-term investment.

The third, and therefore trend-cementing, Explainer Show in recent months is Amazon’s This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy, a mouthful of a title that encompasses a bevy of name-brand collaborators. This Giant Beast is executive produced by director Adam McKay and New Yorker economics correspondent Adam Davidson, and hosted by Kal Penn, the actor–turned–Obama aide–turned–viewer proxy who gets an education in knotty concepts like money laundering and counterfeit economies on our behalf. The show takes the explanatory device McKay pioneered with The Big Short—have celebrities sling SAT words at the camera—and turns it into a core premise, with Meghan Trainor and Patton Oswalt subbed in for Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie.

But This Giant Beast lacks the tongue-in-cheek “isn’t it sad we have to sex this up so much to make it interesting” element of The Big Short, and ultimately showcases some of the Explainer Show’s pitfalls. Even more than the typical infotainment comedy show, which can bring in correspondents or guests, the Explainer Show lives or dies on the host, who must be enough of an everyman to mirror the audience’s curiosity, but also engaging enough to relay his (and so far, it’s only his) findings. Amazon clearly spent handsomely on This Giant Beast, which globe-trots from Cyprus to Hong Kong to Washington, D.C., in its search for answers—which only puts more pressure on Penn as a grand unifier. Ultimately, he can’t quite sell the cutesy bits required by This Giant Beast’s highly stylized scenarios.

The tighter and more knowledge-based its lens, the better the show is: How do you buy a house with ill-gotten cash? Why are counterfeits a bigger deal than some cheap bags? They’re simple questions with relatively simple answers, or at least ones that can be squeezed into an hour or less. Meanwhile, existential queries like “Are Rich People Dicks, Or Do Dicks Get Rich?” and “Is Money Bullshit?”—the second and seventh episodes out of eight—inevitably yield an unsatisfying sample platter of pop psychology. Animating dry material in order to illustrate its complexities is one thing, reducing those complexities another.

In between these celebrity-driven series, Netflix has also released the most literal-minded Explainer Show of all: Explained, a weekly series from the media company Vox rendering its signature style into a bigger, glossier package. Launched last spring, Explained eschews a host entirely in favor of a rotating cast of voice-overs, giving primacy to archival footage, expert interviews, and above all, the collective voice of the Vox brand. Jumping from astrology to cricket to diets to esports, Explained is both the simplest and broadest of the Explainer Shows. But the absence of a charismatic surrogate inadvertently shows that adapting one of the internet’s favorite formats to TV may require some concessions to its new home.

At their best, Explainer Shows can mitigate the veneer of objectivity that marks the style’s biggest handicap, because they’re not presented as objective—they’re delivered as, and are, the point of view of a single person, bolstered by their writing and research staffs. Viewers go to them for mini-seminars because they like and trust that point of view. Meanwhile, shows like This Giant Beast and Explained elide huge assumptions about the subjective merits of capitalism or uncertain sciences like nutrition in their chipper CliffsNotes, which can’t slow down enough to allow for ambiguity. Then again, the Explainer Show already functions like a calming, constructive counterweight to the news. Letting in nuance, and the rancor that comes with it, risks spoiling the mood.