In the spring of 2008, Rebecca Solnit published an essay on TomDispatch titled “Men Explain Things to Me; in which she related a now-infamous story of attending a Very Respectable Party at which a Very Respectable Man interrupted her talking about her newest book to hold forth of the great importance of what, he turned ashen to learn after her friend finally managed to interject, was Solnit’s own dang book.
“Men explain things to me, still,” Solnit wrote following that anecdote. “And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath.”
The scourge of Men Explaining Things to Women (and anyone else with ears who might be dragooned into politely not interrupting) has finally, a decade on from Solnit’s essay, found its way into the crosshairs of someone whose approach might actually be able to shift the culture—and that person is a Man who has found a way to monetize Explaining Things to unhappy listeners for laughs.
I am, of course, talking about Adam Conover, of truTV’s great and good comedy explainer series, Adam Ruins Everything, on which, as the titular Ruiner, his favorite word is actually (in “Adam Ruins Prisons,” he gets it tattooed on his knuckles) and his favorite thing to do is bop cheerfully into very diversely cast people’s private lives to, well, dragoon them into a journey of heavily sourced learning about all the things in those private lives they’re utterly wrong about.
On paper, this show sounds like the absolute worst. But comedian Adam Conover’s approach to ruiner Adam Conover is sharp and intentional: This is not a man who explains things just to explain them. He is someone whose most deeply held belief is, “It’s always better to know,” and whose commitment to that belief means that he is just as ready to listen and learn when he’s wrong as he is to explain and ruin.
The joke is he’s that guy, the Explaining Things guy, but the trick is, duh—being that guy, and never accepting the possibility that you might be wrong or that someone else might know better, is a recipe for driving people away. Ruiner Adam is only ever successful when he remembers his humility and treats ruining not as a competitive sport in which bumming people out equates with winning, but rather as an act of empathy in which the goal is to give hope and productive paths forward. When Ruiner Adam explains wrongly something an expert or friend knows that he doesn’t, he doesn’t just apologize—he cheers. The only thing Ruiner Adam loves more than explaining is being explained to. Comedian Adam, too—he’s got a whole podcast for sitting down at length with the show’s many experts to prove it.
The second half of season 2 of Adam Ruins Everything premieres today with a mini-run of all-animated episodes ruining everything we thought we knew about history, starting with the American Revolution (historical spoiler: Paul Revere had, like, a ton of help). If I’ve convinced you to give this Man Explaining Things a shot and you want to get acclimated to Ruiner Adam’s particular style live-action before diving into his mind at its most animated, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite episodes below.
One note: While all Adam Ruins Everything episodes are fashioned to satisfy as standalones, there’s a nice light-touch background arc of growth for Ruiner Adam, featuring regular characters like his public defender sister, Rhea (Rhea Butcher), his totally real Internet girlfriend, Melinda (Punam Patel), his reluctant best friend, Emily (Emily Axford), and her boyfriend/fiancé/husband, Murph (Brian Murphy), who, along with a dozen more recurring Ruinees, help round out the idea that Ruiner Adam is less a joke than he is a struggling, insecure person who acts out in a very specific way. The list that follows includes examples from both types of episode, with sources and all relevant podcasts linked for each.
Supporting experts: Professor Donald Shoup, Tim Peters, Seleta Reynolds
Some of Adam’s best Ruins are of things that a plurality of people have already secretly (or not so secretly) just been waiting to have ruined—you know, the parts of life that feel like inescapable traps, that you just know, deep down, are making the human experiment worse, and whose sharp and thorough ruining is nothing more than pure vindication. Many of ARE’s earliest episodes go after exactly these things—the heartless, greedy scam that is the diamond engagement ring; the utter waste of time that is airport security; the self-perpetuating injustices of tipping—but “Adam Ruins Cars,” in which Adam vindicates a fed-up dad on the hunt for a car for his teen son by confirming that dealerships are lowdown dirty jerks, car manufacturers stole the streets from the public, car ownership exacerbates class inequality, and traffic is taking years off our lives, is the one that best vindicates the frustrations any driver might have with the whole business, while simultaneously revealing the most surprising historical and data-driven evidence.
Remarkably, the episode doesn’t touch on ridesharing apps (just the first among many shocking reminders of how long ago in today’s years 2015 really was—yes, I’m talking to you, Russian-free “Adam Ruins Voting” episode from November, 2015), but all that really means is the groundwork has been laid for an “Adam Ruins Even More Cars” episode in a future season.
Supporting experts: Caitlin Doughty, Dr. Bernard “Bud” Hammes
“Adam Ruins Death” is, relatively speaking, one of the show’s less ambitious episodes. I know that seems like a wild statement, but, as Adam so un-euphemistically lays out in the grim, blue-lit cold open: Everyone dies. It’s the biggest topic there is, and yet, its very bigness makes it intimate and nearly as uncontroversial as any Ruinable topic could be. We all die! Literally no one can argue with that, or put up reflexively contrarian walls against it, and ARE leans hard and compellingly into that truth as it breaks down the relative novelty and straight-up disrespectfulness of embalming, the scam artistry behind the modern funeral industry, and the alarming possible consequences of not having serious talks about end-of-life care with loved ones and primary care physicians long before such care is needed. It also features some great character work from Emily, Adam’s most consistent foil, and even features a shocking (well, or not) twist ending.
But what really pushes this episode into Best Of territory is the end-of-episode lesson, which is delivered not by Adam to cheer up the person whose day he just ruined, but instead, in a move that foreshadows episodes to come, by Emily—to an unmoored Adam. “I don’t know what to do. There’s got to be something I can learn to make this better,” Adam half-sobs, confronted with real death after talking about hypotheticals for the last half hour. “I don’t think there is,” Emily assures him and all born Explainers out there. “I think it’s OK not to know.”
Supporting experts: Professor Douglas Massey, Professor Jackie Stevens
In what will become a trend of Adam letting himself be pushed out of the way to make space for other characters with more relevant experience to do the ruining, the bilingual “Adam Ruins Immigration” employs Esai Morales as Alphonso of Alphonso Ruins Everything, the Spanish-speaking and much more beloved version of Adam’s show, to explain to Adam’s nieta y abuela Ruinees the common misconceptions behind the actual border-crossing aspect of one of the United States’ most volatile political debates. Once the Ruin moves to the American Immigration Court system, Adam resumes control, but his enthusiasm to hand over the learning process to someone better qualified goes a long way to sell his reliability as a Ruiner.
Supporting experts: Daryl Atkinson, Dorsey Nunn, Professor Michael McCann, Professor Adam Benforado
Speaking of enthusiastically handing over the learning process to someone better qualified, the first episode of this devastating two-part cycle on the brokenness of the American justice and mass incarceration systems (which starts with Emily landing in prison for mistakes Adam made in the “Adam Ruins Drugs” episode) sees Adam handing over Ruiner duties to both a character more likely to have the relevant experience—Emily’s black cellmate, Kendra (Nicole Roberts), who can better speak to the racist, post-slavery poison running through American prisons’ veins—and to formerly incarcerated real-world activists for prison reform, lawyer Daryl Atkinson and executive director for legal services for Prisoners with Children, Dorsey Nunn, who introduce Emily to the Ban the Box campaign, and remind her to “use your privilege for something meaningful.”
In the follow-up episode, Adam’s bullheadedness gets called out by his own sister, Rhea, whose job it often is to temper his enthusiasms. In this case, Ruiner Adam’s enthusiasm for knowledge falls too far over the cliff into Men Explaining Things territory and he loses sight of the human being (Kendra, from the prisons episode) at the end of his educational actuallys about the poverty of the American public defenders system. “It’s easy to stand in front of a camera and rattle off criticisms while you wait for a perfect world to fall into your lap,” Rhea says, “but while you do that, I’m going to dig in, work my ass off, and make sure your innocent friend doesn’t go to prison.” These are among the more brutal of ARE episodes, but they are terrific.
Supporting experts: Professor Joel Waldfogel, Adam Savage
Much like there has never been a useful Man Explaining Everything until Ruiner Adam, there has never been an actual War on Christmas until “Adam Ruins Christmas,” in which the roots of our most beloved Christmas traditions are revealed for the bawdy, paganistic and/or corrupt things they so often were.
And yet, Christmas isn’t ruined, because as Adam is always taking pains to point out: “It’s always better to know.” In 2016-era Internet jargon, you can still like your problematic faves, you just have to be willing to recognize their problems.
The best part of this episode—well, aside from giving you the right reason for not buying gifts for your extended family—is that it does the things holiday specials always do: It brings the emotional ties together and levels the main character up in maturity. Even as a sketch-esque comedy show, ARE benefits from that holiday episode magic, here mostly with Adam’s relationship with his more traditionally-minded sister, but also with Emily and Murph and all the Season One Ruinees who end up attending Adam’s Christmas party because they, too, recognize that yes: It’s always better to know.
Supporting experts: Dr. Marion Nestle, Dr. Kevin Hall
Aside from maybe “Adam Ruins Animals,” there aren’t any other ARE episodes that will feel so universally challenging as “Adam Ruins Weight Loss.” Sure, the political ones may lead to bristling among conservatives in the audience, but the toxicity of modern standards for body image knows no bounds: They reach everywhere, and they reach deep.
Which is why dipping a metaphorical toe into the water of diet and weight loss myths here, with a Ruiner you trust and sources you can fall back on, is so useful. It’s not satisfying, as the takeaway is less “Here’s a way we can better approach weight loss” than “Hey, maybe be kinder to your body and less worried about body image,” which neither scratches the trained diet hunter’s itch nor assuages the ire of people who can’t in their gut (that one both metaphorical and literal) allow for any kind of fat positivity as the only takeaway. But it is useful. And with learning, that’s always the best start.
Supporting experts: Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, Dr. Joann Elmore
Unlike “Adam Ruins Immigration,” which takes on the exact political debate that is so currently volatile (literally, immigration), “Adam Ruins the Hospital” takes on our other major political bomb of moment, health care, and reflects it through the actual for-profit hospitals that set the prices, and pharmaceutical and diagnostic care they provide, rather than through the politically insoluble arcana of health insurance.
The result of this change of frame is a scales-from-the-eyes revelation about hospital chargemasters, and the boiling rage that knowledge of them will stoke. Plus, a really clear-eyed “in show” look at mammograms followed by an in-depth interview between Comedian Adam and Dr. Elmore in the final act break. (That sit-down is a trend that follows for the remainder of Season Two).
By the by, if a male comedian spending so much time on mammograms is at all surprising, consider that this is just a small representation of the inclusivity of experience with which the ARE team injects the show. Women-specific topics are treated with just as much seriousness and investment of time as men’s—a whole episode was devoted to having a baby, and Emily pulled her own ruin in “Adam Ruins Sex” to educate Adam and Murph on the hymen—with zero inflection of “ew, girls” even as a joke on Ruiner Adam’s part. There could be more LGBTQ and disability inclusion, but just the gender chillness is more than one would expect from dude-led comedy.)
Supporting experts: Professor Anne Curzan, Dr. Bernard “Bud” Hammes
Before the “Reanimated History” arc, there was “Adam Ruins What We Learned in School,” which takes its cue from at least three animated classics for kids: The Magic School Bus (Adam pops into Miss Dazzle’s team to bring her class on the Magic Van), Schoolhouse Rock (Professor Anne Curzan shows up as a literal bookworm, in the best, most anti-pedantry segment of the episode), and Peabody’s Improbable History.
Adam’s animated school lessons contain WAY more blood than any of its inspirations, of course (Columbus was a super bad dude), but that’s a benefit animation has on live action: History doesn’t have to be sanitized to be made palatable.
Supporting experts: Professor Rebecca Kluchin, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky
In the best episode of the series thus far, Emily turns Adam’s game around on him and, as a birthday present, ruins him for an episode, going all the way from destroying his dependence on IQ and Mensa to correcting his own mistakes from previous episodes (he loves to be proven wrong!) to boxing him into understanding the inescapability of the Backfire Effect (a lesson we all need, in the era of Fake News).
He loves it, up until the Backfire Effect gets him and he doesn’t, convinced that his whole show is pointless if no one is going to change their minds almost ever, but least of all when some loud doofus is in their ear trying to badger them into it. And thus, the sketch show takes an actual dramatic twist, with Adam leaving Emily to go off in search of his Internet girlfriend, away from all the temptation to Ruin.
Supporting experts: Dr. Richard Jackson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones
Most of the post-”Emily Ruins Adam” episodes feature Adam’s Internet Girlfriend, Melinda, but this one sees Adam off on his own, ruining the racist, ageist, anti-ecological nightmare that is the American suburb.
Adam’s guest experts are always good (and charmingly awkward), but this episode’s trio—especially journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones—is particularly compelling. Equally compelling is the optimistic takeaway, which communicates the message that anyone in a position of privilege struggles to hear: You are not at fault or bad for the evil things that shaped the history of a system that advantages you; you are only responsible for how you put that information to use to make things more equitable and just moving forward.
Supporting experts: Mark Schubin, Dr. Daniel Jolley
Spoiler alert: Ruiner Adam’s girlfriend believes in Fake News! Worse still, she doesn’t believe in the moon landing!
Few topics have been so welcomingly relevant to the cultural moment as conspiracy theories, the tenacity of which lies in psychology not unrelated to the Backfire Effect, and having Adam tackle it via his non-white, otherwise woke girlfriend helps serve as a reminder that conspiracy theorizing is endemic to the human experience, rather than just belonging to one fringe political or cultural group. The fact that his efforts to dissuade her have no power, even after his strongly delivered reminder that “undermining people who expose actual conspiracies takes you further from the truth, not closer,” is even more effective. Sometimes not even being the best version of that guy is enough to make a difference.
Supporting experts: Dr. Azra Raza, Dr. Brian Nosek
For people who believe in data and forming opinions based on proof—AKA, Ruiner Adam (and, as will be clear if you listen to even one podcast, Comedy Adam)—the thought that science itself could be suspect is anathema. Which is precisely why it’s such an important topic for a Ruiner to take on.
One of the lessons that it takes Ruiner Adam 40-plus episodes to learn is that you can’t know what you can’t know, and this episode is the culmination of that sentiment. Science is, like explaining the truth with empathy and a willingness to listen, both great and good—but it is limited by human biases not just in interpreting evidence, but in designing the questions that turned up said evidence in the first place. If only men are included in a clinical trial, how valid are the results? If the only way to keep a research job is to publish and the only way to get published is to create novel experiments, then how to maintain a robust system of reproducibility? What is science?
They’re big questions, but they’re no death—and actually, in this episode as in all of them, Adam’s got (ruining) this.
Season Three of Adam Ruins Everything premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on truTV.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She
can be found @AlexisKG.