“Memory” introduces the style and techniques of Netflix’s new docuseries, but thanks to some questionable topic choices feels a bit distractingly agenda-driven.
I’m not sure that perhaps the most devastating and certainly the most culturally prominent act of extremist terrorism is a great starting point for a quirky docuseries about the mind, but that is, unfortunately, how The Mind, Explained chooses to open its first episode, “Memory”. And the fact the topic is mentioned repeatedly throughout proves the associations with 9/11 weren’t just an unfortunate accident — someone thought it was a good idea.
It wasn’t, obviously, but it also wasn’t enough of a bad one to detract from how great the concept of The Mind, Explained actually is: Across five really brief 20-ish-minute episodes, Emma Stone narrates over a series of interviews, archive footage and hand-drawn cartoons that smartly and engagingly outline a specific topic related to the human mind. “Memory” is the first, and despite feeling somewhat agenda-driven, is nonetheless a highly interesting slice of probing that helps us understand who we are and why we’d care to know in the first place.
The introduction of a multiple time memory tournament champion helps to posit the art of recollection as something of a superpower, and when she starts showing off by memorizing a ridiculous sequence of numbers and easily spouting them off without looking, you get a sense of how impressive the feat is. As it goes on the episode begins to explain certain facets of memory, such as how much of it is defined by moments of major change, and how specifically it is tied to notions of narrative, place, and emotion, This is eventually tied back to the memory grandmaster recalling that number sequence as an elaborate and faintly ridiculous tour of her mind palace, where real footage combines really well with the animation to transporting effect.
It’s immediately obvious why The Mind, Explained is so effective: It exhibits all the hallmarks of excellent non-fictional writing by making a clear point in as few words as possible, helped along by animation that is likeable and possessed of personality but is also simplistic and to-the-point. Some topical quibbles aside, this episode provides a strong and intriguing start to Netflix’s latest docuseries.