Everything you thought you knew is wrong, and Adam Conover is going to tell you about it.
This is the premise of Adam Ruins Everything, which premiered last night on TruTV. Based on Conover’s CollegeHumor series of the same name – ruining everything is kind of his calling card – Adam methodically debunks our collective common misconceptions, using crisp, candy-coated segments to deliver difficult truths: engagement rings are a corporate construct, shoe-shopping is not actually social activism, and bulldog puppies are biological catastrophes. (It’s a dark world out there.)
As in the CollegeHumor videos, Adam is still our gleefully know-it-all friend and fairy godmother, and he’s still explaining why all our assumptions about the way the world works are misguided, only he’s doing it more. The television version, it turns out, isn’t all that different from the four-minute web videos: it’s still Adam, still pompadoured, still correcting the common misconceptions of everyone around him. He’s still oblivious to their annoyance; they’re still annoyed. But instead of watching this dynamic play out in four-minute internet doses, we now get it in half-hour television doses. And instead of getting one Facebook-ready lesson on one topic, we get several related lessons on a theme.
In the season premiere, that theme is “giving.” Emily (Emily Axford) is having a birthday party outside the school where she teaches. This isn’t a plot point, because there is no plot: there are only circumstances designed to justify Adam-issued explainers about giving, in all its many forms. And so the birthday party leads to a surprise marriage proposal from Brian (Brian Murphy), which is an occasion to rework the original “Why Engagement Rings Are a Scam” video into a slightly slicker TV version. When one of Emily’s friends presents her with a birthday pair of Toms shoes, it’s an excuse for Adam to pop in and debunk the brand’s feel-good mythology; like engagement rings, the “buy one, give one” model isn’t what we thought. Neither are canned food drives (“now those have some problems”), disaster-relief blood drives (“if you really want to help after a disaster, wait a few months and donate then”), and soda can pull-tabs (“totally worthless”). In every setup, generic liberal Emily is excited about doing something good, and sweetly obnoxious human-Wikipedia-page Adam “ruins everything,” crushing her well-intentioned spirit with a witty and fact-based explanation of how exactly her behavior is misguided. (Charities, the episode concludes, don’t actually need your old coats; they need your cash.) Emily greets each new revelation the same way – petulantly and with mild disgust – but reluctantly accepts these new truths. (If you are less trusting, citations pop up on-screen, and a full bibliography for each episode is available online.)
This is a surprisingly entertaining formula, like Sesame Street for Vox readers. The question is never what’s going to happen – we know that already; Emily’s going to be wrong – but how it’s going to happen. There are so many different ways for her to be wrong, and in a half-hour format, we’re going to get all of them, a whole pile up of well-meaning wrongness. And then, Adam is going to correct all of it.
It’s hard to write about Adam Ruins Everything without acknowledging that it is a show in which a smarter-than-thou man explains things to a woman, whose sole purpose is to have things explained to her. This creates what you might call “a weird gender dynamic.” Adam is always right, and Emily is always wrong, and then Adam explains things to Emily. He also explains things to everybody else, when they’re around, but mostly, they aren’t, which means that if you wanted to dismiss Adam Ruins Everything as an extended exercise in mansplaining, you definitely could.
But if you did that, you’d be missing the joke. Adam isn’t a mansplainer; he’s a pathological explainer, and Emily is less a human character than a stand-in for unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom. We tune in because we want to learn the truth; she tunes out because having your worldview shaken is a bummer. Deep down, the show isn’t just a series of amusing explainers – it’s an entreaty against complacency. Emily, it turns out, isn’t our surrogate after all. She’s the setup to our punchline.
Which is to say that the entire premise of Adam Ruins Everything, down to the ironically patronizing title, is somewhat insincere. Adam isn’t ruining everything at all. Adam is ruining one particular type of thing: the orthodoxies that you yourself don’t adhere to, because you are a curious, nimble-minded person, ever eager to learn new things and challenge your previously held notions. Or you’re not, but in that case you’re probably also not watching this show.