Promotional image for History 101 (all images courtesy Netflix)

Netflix documentary series have their own vocabulary. Sweeping establishing shots conducted by drones. Carefully deployed slow motion to up the dramatic ante. A high-gloss cinematic style, facilitated by a carefully curated list of approved fancy 4K+ cameras and color grading software. In recent years, a dominant pattern in their subject matter has emerged as well. Netflix docuseries exist mainly at two poles: true crime and infotainment explainers. In most cases, the crime series get the most attention, seen recently with shows like Tiger King, Don’t F**k With Cats, and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. These are sensationalist stories told with verve and panache, and can be easily binged over a weekend. Then there are shows like The Movies/Toys That Made Us, Trial By Media, History 101, and the Vox-produced Explained. These are shorter works, delivered breezily and with a quasi-neutral tone. There are of course shows like Cheer that exist outside this binary, but generally speaking, Netflix has closed ranks around these two pillars.

Promotional image for Explained 

The explainers in particular represent an intriguing development, fitting alongside Vox’s broader approach to journalism and the growth in late-night content like John Oliver’s 20-minute deep dives into various topics or Seth Meyers’s “A Closer Look” segments. The idea is to give people a supposedly extensive and thorough overview of a subject inside a brief window, whether it’s an exploration of kinks (as in Sex, Explained) or the history of feminism (as in History 101). Naturally, these are largely surface-level analyses, which is tolerable in some cases, but can become misguided or egregiously irresponsible in others. 

From History 101, “Oil and the Middle East”

For example, one subject spectacularly ill-suited to a 20-minute rundown is oil conflict in West Asia, but History 101 tries to do it anyway. The show’s general aesthetic is similar to author Hank Green’s YouTube series Crash Course, with punchy infographics and a dizzying array of stimuli to keep viewers engaged with the potentially difficult subject matter. The episode in question, “Oil and the Middle East,” gives an extremely cursory glimpse at the historical context of the various wars and uprisings in the region, going all the way back to the early 1900s.

The episode is narrated by a trusty British woman, Natalie Silverman, which is a kind of nihilistic choice given the role the British Empire played in Western exploitation of these countries. (History 101 is a British production.) The episode acknowledges American-led coups in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere throughout the 20th century, along with other violent interventions, but they are presented uncritically. Describing the first Gulf War, Silverman says: “The Western allies decide to intervene. They can’t afford to stand by anymore while the Middle East oil producers rip each other apart. The West’s oil supply must be protected.” There’s a quote attributed to an unnamed peace activist about US interest in oil, but otherwise these aggressive military maneuvers are not challenged, questioned, or analyzed in any way. Fracking in the US is referred to as a “success” and a “revolution.” The episode vaguely acknowledges that “sketchy reports” led to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, in a nice bit of subtle revisionism. 

From Trial By Media

This dangerously unconsidered example is representative of History 101 as a whole, as well as shows like it. Trial By Media has episodes about the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo (an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by four NYPD officers, all of whom were acquitted) and “vigilante” Bernard Goetz’s 1984 shooting of four Black teenagers on a New York subway (he was also found not guilty). To the show’s credit, it goes into these topics in greater depth than History 101, with episodes lasting an hour each and incorporating a wide range of archival footage and other materials. But it’s nonetheless ill-equipped to provide the full context of police brutality, crime rates, vigilantism, and racial profiling, not to mention its supposed central thesis of media sensationalism. By presenting events and accounts matter-of-factly, without any commentary or proper context, these shows cannot provide viewers with anything of substance to take away from them. Trial By Media doesn’t so much indict the media as it demonstrates the significance of having a point of view. 

If these shows encourage people to do their own research into topics that pique their interest, that’s great. But this format suggests something about Netflix’s strategizing as it moves forward into the streaming wars, with more competitors joining the fray. These politically and socially fraught topics are completely disconnected from the house style of the platform, and these shows strip them of all complexity and political consciousness. Churning out more of this content appears to be a calculated, algorithm- and data-driven decision on Netflix’s part to get people to click and stay on their platform without offering any perspective — which is, of course, its own form of persuasion. In the meantime, the consumer feels educated, fulfilled, and satisfied. If these superficial history lessons are the result of algorithmic programming, nonfiction filmmakers might want to reconsider the site as a distributor. 

Jake Pitre is a writer and PhD candidate at Concordia University. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, the Globe and Mail, Catapult,...

One reply on “The Shortcomings of Netflix’s Documentary House Style”

  1. Another disturbing trend is the History Channel’s various “History of food in America” type documentaries, celebrating Kellog and Post as “heroes” of nutrition. A great way to practice your eye-roll, tho.

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