After a two-year hiatus, Netflix series History 101 returns with 10 episodes about highly generalized warm-topic fodder like MP3s, high fructose corn syrup and credit cards. Clocking in at a smidge over 20 minutes per episode, this could be TL;DR: The Series, since it’s so good at condensing fairly complex topics into bite-sized infotainment nuggets that are zingy in their visual presentation, more fun than reading Wikipedia and should conclude with “For more information on Grand Funk, consult your school library!” The first season, which debuted in 2020, must’ve garnered enough viewership to warrant a second, so let’s dip into the first new episode, about GPS, and see if the series warrants further watching.
Opening Shot: Smiling young people pack the streets, playing Pokemon Go on their smartphones.
The Gist: In 2016, Pokemon Go was a huge phenomenon, getting couch potatoes worldwide outside to breathe actual fresh air while walking around, trying to find virtual eggs and little monster things in numerous physical locations. They wouldn’t have been able to do this without the global positioning system, which uses satellites and major craploads of math to calculate locations of people, places and things with such accuracy, it could find you even Honey shrunk you and you were standing on the head of a pin. We’re given heaps of statistics about how many people use GPS and how it impacts the economy, and for the sake of concision, I’ll say it’s a lot of folks and even more dollar bills. You won’t be surprised by that.
BUT. Here’s the kicker. Using GPS allows nefarious whatevers out there – whatever they are, the show doesn’t really explain because it sticks with the passive voice, but one assumes they’re evil Satanic corporations – to mine our data and sell it. Hopefully there’ll be more about that later in the episode, but now, here’s some funny old archival footage of people using – be prepared to LOL – paper maps! Remember those? Then, in the 1950s, after Russia launched Sputnik, the first-ever manmade satellite, into orbit, some major dweebonoids started tracking it by the beeps it emitted, the first pioneering steps toward developing the GPS. And then that idea was adopted by who else but the military, so they could more accurately and efficiently kill people with missiles.
In the ’70s, the U.S. Government created Navstar, a system of satellites enabling geolocation. At first, the tech was limited to government use, and eventually was adopted by civilians, although those in power could throttle its accuracy for national security purposes I guess, or perhaps because they just like being in control of all the people, places and things. But that throttling, known as “selective availability,” was discontinued in 2000, and that’s when you could go to Montgomery Ward or wherever and buy a GPS transmitter so you don’t get lost while hiking in the mountains or on your way to the loo. The commercialized technology led to car navigation systems, tracking devices, transmitters you can attach to pigeons that help measure air quality and apps that’ll get you quick medical assistance if you should be bitten by a snake. The future will bring more package-delivering drones and driverless cars. And here’s where things get dark: The tech is also being used for surveillance, so companies can mine your data in exchange for billions of dollars. And you half expect Werner Herzog to narrate the very last bit in which we speculate what’ll happen if the system crashes. Pandelerium!
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? History 101 isn’t quite History Channel fodder is it? (No dry, long-winded documentary fodder about wars and politics from hundreds of years ago here.) It seems almost indistinguishable from Netflix’s Explained, and has a tone similar to How It’s Made.
Our Take: Don’t look away from History 101 for more than a second, lest you miss a half-dozen factoids. That’s what this series is: High-speed infotainment. The only voice we ever hear is narrator Natalie Silverman, who talks atop infographics and archival footage ranging from kitschy to corny to doom-laden (or all of the above, e.g., when the episode touches on the inevitability of system failure, we see a SLO-MO shot of a cell phone FALLING to the ground and SMASHING into pieces). It’s fun to watch, but has a tell-me-something-I-don’t-know quality to its more analytical components. Maybe we weren’t aware that Sputnik’s launch initiated GPS development, but just grazing across the idea that the tech is being used for nefarious purposes and never getting too specific about it seems like an invitation to fall down deep, dark internet conspiracy theory rabbit holes.
The first season touched on broader topics like AIDS, feminism and “the rise of China.” But one assumes the fast food, robots and nuclear power episodes got more viewers, because the second season hones in on similar progress-with-a-price subject matter: credit cards, bottled water, high fructose corn syrup, lasers. (Boy, we better not let morally corrupt profit-driven people get their hands on any of that stuff!) And that’s where History 101 sets itself up to fail, because discussions about the use of ideas or technology for good and evil outcomes surely demand more than 20-minute lickety-split dashes through complicated material – and a couple lines of pat and simplistic Life Advice before the credits roll. For more information on the potential fallout of a global technology meltdown, consult Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World!
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: “If we want to be able to truly find our place in the world, we might try turning off the GPS for a while,” says the narrator, as we see a guy shut down his phone and go to sleep.
Sleeper Star: Whatever mega-film nerd is employed to dig through the archives for goofy old film clips.
Most Pilot-y Line: Narrator: “Ninety percent of new cars sold in America have built-in GPS – transmitting your data that can be sold to the highest bidder.”
Our Call: History 101 shows a little more ambition in its topic selection this season, but the substance of the show still remains flimsy. SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.