How We Got to Now

TV review by
Emily Ashby, Common Sense Media
How We Got to Now TV Poster Image
History's greatest ideas are smart fun for curious families.

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Positive Messages

The series inspires curiosity about a range of subjects and encourages viewers to think critically about how necessity has driven innovation and altered human progression throughout history.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The show gives credit where it's due, treating with reverence the brilliant minds behind some of the world's greatest thinkers, whose work continues to benefit us today. The narrator emphasizes that great inventors can come from modest backgrounds.


Possible references to conflict, war, or disease.


Rarely "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How We Got to Now is an educational docuseries about how great ideas and innovation have driven human history. Each hour-long episode delves into a different subject that has seen remarkable progress in recent centuries, making connections between challenges of long ago (for instance, "How do we keep things cold?" and "How do we regulate time?") and modern mainstays such as the iPhone and GPS and giving credit where it's due to the great minds behind notable inventions along the way. The topics are intriguing enough, and it's fascinating to follow the host's progression from centuries-old breakthroughs to how the world looks today, but the sheer density of the information makes it best suited for teens and adults with real curiosity about this particular brand of historical learning. 

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What's the story?

In HOW WE GOT TO NOW, science author and host Steven Johnson studies how some of history's greatest ideas were born and how their legacies continue to affect our lives today. This series covers topics such as refrigeration, sound, and light, drawing connections between ancient quandaries and the remarkable innovations that solved them and eventually ushered in modern times. Along the way he introduces viewers to the people behind inventions that revolutionized lives centuries ago and still play a role in how we live today.

Is it any good?

This documentary mini-series is educational TV at its best. Johnson investigates subjects whose scope and historical impact are deserving of their own individual series (the history of time, for instance) and masterfully condenses them down to hour-long segments that touch on the highlights, pay homage to the unsung heroes, and make fascinating connections between troubles of old and triumphs of today. If you're the type who wonders where the link exists between the age-old battle against dirt and the creation of the modern marvel that is your flat-screen TV, then this is the show for you.

As for its content, there's nothing here that's worrisome for families, but the subject matter isn't likely to strike a chord with kids and tweens. Not even Johnson's conversational delivery and obvious enthusiasm for the subject matter can entirely mask the fact that the series is a glorified history lesson. But for older viewers with an interest in these kinds of things, How We Got to Now is well worth the time. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how inventions like the ones explored on How We Got to Now improve our standard of living. On what modern inventions are you reliant on a daily basis? What problems do they solve? Do any further complicate matters or create new problems altogether?

  • Is it important to study and learn from history? What, if any, lessons from the distant past can we apply to our lives today? How do the politics compare, for instance? Race relations? Social problems?

  • A famous quote is, "History is written by the victors." How do our own convictions influence our telling and interpretation of factual events? Is it ever possible to remain unbiased about an event or a situation? How does this affect the nature of education or governance? 

  • How does How We Got to Now promote curiosity? Why is this an important character strength?

TV details

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