“We the People” is aggressively, viscerally enthusiastic. Presented in four-minute bursts of song, the new Netflix series from the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions infuses civics lessons with joyous songs and psychedelic animation. Each bite-sized episode tackles a new aspect of the U.S. government with the grinning fervor of a high school musical’s opening night, featuring a different performer and animation style that renders each unique. The collective result, spanning just 40 minutes in total, is an overwhelming montage of information that almost immediately feels like a time capsule of political optimism past.
Created by “Doc McStuffins” creator Chris Nee, and executive produced by Kenya Barris alongside the Obamas, “We the People” feels more like a high-budget YouTube series than a Netflix original — but that is, in essence, the point. Aiming for the Venn diagram overlap between “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Hamilton,” the show has the general vibe and shape of one that strives to provide education and entertainment through multiple replays. Since it hands over the creative reins to a new set of voices in just about every episode, though, only a few — like “Active Citizenship” (featuring H.E.R.) and “Taxes” (featuring Cordae) — rise to the level of revealing more layers upon a rewatch, or even the baseline of providing a truly informative earworm. (Only one episode, from Janelle Monáe and Nate “Rocket” Wonder, was not available for review.) Otherwise, “We the People” is fascinating if only because of how it manages to be both completely strange and utterly predictable.
It’s not altogether surprising, for instance, that the “Courts” episode (sung by Andra Day) ends its list of landmark cases in 2015. Almost more than anything else, this is a series that would really rather not talk about the noxious political discourse that has became the norm before its executive producers left the White House. Instead, it gets Adam Lambert to belt a song about the Bill of Rights hinging on the forced smile of a line that its amendments “may not be perfect, but they work so far!” (The exception to this rule is “The Miracle of Morning,” the final episode featuring a new original poem by inauguration speaker Amanda Gorman about emerging from the pandemic a better country.)
The clash between the series’ overall commitment to viewing the government through rose-colored glasses and trying to be as truthful as possible is unavoidably confusing. “The Three Branches of Government,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the “Frozen” team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, is deliberately chaotic as all the branches fight for attention, but it’s too overwhelming to be all that effective. Brandi Carlile’s earnest “The First Amendment” ballad is perfectly fine until it has to make room for such cringe-inducing insights as, “there’s only one wall built with wisdom / it’s the wall between church and state!” Perhaps the most secondhand embarrassment comes courtesy of the “Immigration” episode as Bebe Rexha sings a cheery song about all the amazing immigrants who have made a life in the United States, simplifying the process into an unintentionally insidious line: “gotta spend a few years to master the test / take an oath saying you love this country the best…”
“We the People” is, at its core, well-meaning. It’s just not especially illuminating in the way it would like to be, having preemptively stopped itself from exploring anything beyond the basics.
“We the People” is now available to stream on Netflix.