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In November of last year, Netflix released an episode of the docuseries Explained that detailed the efforts underway to prevent the spread of a global pandemic. By mid-March, as Americans began to feel the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the team behind Explained was busy brainstorming ideas for the show’s third season when Netflix reached out with a request: Would they unpack what was happening with the coronavirus for viewers?
Out of those conversations was born a new mini-season of Explained devoted to the coronavirus. The first episode premieres Sunday, with an additional two installments planned for a summer release.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to provide a public service,” says showrunner Claire Gordon. “This was a moment that was incredibly confusing for the whole world and it felt like a thing that our show could do well in trying to make it understandable.”
Producer Vox Media, via entertainment arm Vox Media Studios and news site Vox, was planning to spend 10 weeks per episode of its upcoming season. But they rushed production on Sunday’s episode and prepped it for release in about two-and-a-half weeks, all while the team was working remotely. They were aided by the fact that they already had conducted in-depth interviews for the earlier episode — “The Next Pandemic” — with experts in the space including Bill Gates. “Many of the interviews that we use in the piece were filmed before the pandemic began,” says executive producer Joe Posner. “We added a lot of context around their concerns and their information.”
Still, about two-thirds of the episode is new. For those updates, producers turned to the Vox newsroom that has been covering the day-to-day news of the outbreak. They also pulled archival footage and leaned on animators working around the clock. J.K Simmons, who narrated the previous pandemic episode, was shipped a recording kit so he could add voiceover to the new episode while sheltering at home.
A particular challenge for this episode was to convey information on a topic that is changing every day. That meant acknowledging when data was inconclusive or when experts still didn’t have the answers. “We just tried to be as honest as possible with the audience about the uncertainties that existed,” says Gordon.
“One of the hardest things to do as a reporter ever is communicate uncertainty,” says Vox founder Ezra Klein, who serves as an executive producer on Explained. “Something we talk about internally is what we’re often doing is explaining the state of knowledge on something. Sometimes the explanation that you can give people that helps them understand why, say, public health authorities or politicians are doing what they’re doing is to show them that this is where the knowledge stops, and after this it becomes guesswork.”
Explained will have more than one episode to tell the story of the coronavirus. Producers are prepping an installment looking specifically at the vaccine development that is underway. Another episode, about how people can cope with the current situation, is also in the works. They will be packaged as a mini-season much like previous installments of the franchise, including Sex, Explained and The Mind, Explained.
Klein says he hopes that these new episodes help build on the foundation of the pandemic episode from last year so that, taken together, they form an archive of sorts that can be useful to viewers even after the coronavirus outbreak has waned. “The capacity to take some of what we did there and then build it into something new, that’s a flexibility the digital streaming medium gives you that others things don’t,” he says.
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