Netflix has thoroughly populated the docuseries genre in recent years, with shows like “Explained,” “Trial by Media” and “Making a Murderer.” Their recent show, “History 101,” aims to educate the masses about globally relevant topics. While the show is both visually exceptional and quite informative, it often oversimplifies complex issues.
Season one of “History 101,” which was released in late May, is made up of 10 episodes covering topics from robots to the rise of China. The episodes are illustrated by archival footage and infographics, which are accompanied by narration. While the visuals are playful and cute, the narrator’s tone is formal, and almost robotic at times. The episodes go over the past 100 years (or fewer) of each topic, and then pose a question about why those topics remain relevant today. For instance, why do we still need feminism? If outer space is dangerous and expensive, why are people so set on exploring it? Are plastics miraculous or catastrophic? The series doesn’t firmly answer these questions, but it provides facts by which viewers can begin to ponder them.
Toward the beginning of the second episode, “Fast Food,” there is an infographic about how the annual revenue from fast food restaurants is larger than the whole economy of Sweden. This is one example of how the various infographics and visuals throughout the show effectively convey information. In the episode about plastics, a world map is shown, with areas of the ocean that are especially filled with plastic highlighted. The animation then zooms in on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, showing that it is twice the size of Texas, and contains 80,000 to 200,000 tons of plastic. This is presented along with the fact that one full garbage truck’s worth of plastic is put into the ocean every minute. With these facts vividly displayed, it becomes hard to get issues like climate change out of your head.
The superb visuals of the show are made up of these graphics and also of great archival footage. For instance, in “Fast Food” there is a good amount of footage from the Soviet Union’s first McDonald’s. It was a cold January morning in 1990 when the country’s inaugural McDonald’s served over 30,000 people in Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square. The show is jam packed with small cultural moments like this which serve as memorable fun facts. Another fun fact from episode three: Sputnik I was the size of a beach ball.
One problem with “History 101” is that the creators of the show attempted to take on complex issues in their 20 minute episodes. The episodes “Oil and the Middle East” and “AIDS” highlight this problem the most. The former summarizes the history of oil-oriented conflicts over the past 100 years. While the timeline the show provides is helpful, it skims over the content far too rapidly, which downplays the nuances of that region’s history. The show also fails to condemn America’s role in the Middle East, and instead seems to sugarcoat it. “History 101” presents the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq as a completely logical, if not inherent, thing to do. Perhaps more bizarre is how, in the episode on feminism, the show fails to take a definitive stance. While the war in Iraq may be complex and debatable, the idea of treating women equally is not.
Due to it’s oversimplification of topics like the Gulf War, the show’s usefulness varies from episode to episode. “The Rise of China” could be very useful in a classroom setting, as it provides tons of statistics and information about the country’s quick industrialization. But the episode on feminism, for instance, is less helpful as it fails to address the contributions of women of color to the movement. Overall, the show is a fun way to learn about a variety of topics, but the episodes about more serious subjects should definitely be watched with a critical eye.