In Six Degrees of Mike Rowe, streaming on new service Discovery+, the Dirty Jobs host follows the strange twists and turns of history, without pretending to be the "voice of authority."
"What it required was not new levels of understanding, intellect, intelligence or knowledge," says Rowe in a phone interview. "What it required of me was a new level of humility.
"So, I have to be on camera now, not as the informed expert lording information over the viewer and dispensing it as I see fit. I'm there as a Guinea pig; I'm there as an apprentice to learn with the viewer from an expert."
Rowe also insisted on having a cameraman constantly filming the behind-the-scenes action for the six episodes.
"My insistence," says Rowe, "that footage from that camera, which I called the 'truth cam,' be sprinkled throughout the final edit, so the viewer was constantly reminded that there was a crew with me, and that we were trying to make a show."
On Dirty Jobs, Rowe showed up as an apprentice for the day on all kinds of necessary but difficult and sometimes unpleasant jobs, seeking to learn from people doing what they do. In Six Degrees of Mike Rowe, he acts as a guide to the sometimes strange connections that happen along the way from the past to the present.
Helping him are sets (virtual and otherwise), some intentionally cheesy puppetry, and Rowe's colleague and high-school pal, Chuck Klausmeyer, who plays a multitude of different roles.
But Rowe doesn't want to be mistaken for some sort of historian.
"Six Degrees was originally called The Way I Heard It," says Rowe. The stories were pulled from my podcast, and it was important for me to be able to say, 'Look, I don't know what really happened. I wasn't there when Charles Newbold invented the iron plow, but this what I've read. And it seems to me that if he hadn't done what, we wouldn't have had the Industrial Revolution.'"
In each episode, Rowe starts with a question, like, "Can a mousetrap really cure your hangover?" or "Did a garbage man give us a glimpse into the Big Bang?" and sets off on a journey to find the answer. We are often taught history in isolated names and dates and places, but in reality, it's a continuum. One choice leads to another; one event leads to another; one encounter can alter the trajectory of someone's life and lead to something world-changing.
Often, the importance of an event isn't apparent for years or even decades. Also, we hear about powerful or influential people, but often those that accomplish great things come from difficult or deprived backgrounds, and may remain largely unheralded.
Rowe's out to change that. For example, there's the case of Charles Newbold, mentioned above, born in New Jersey in the late 1700s.
"Look," he says, "I want you to know that Charles Newbold was 17 years old, a blacksmith who decided one day that maybe an iron plow would be a good idea.
"He never made any money from that, but without him there's no John Deere, there's no Caterpillar, there's no Agricultural Revolution and thus no Industrial Revolution.
"He was a 17-year-old skilled tradesman who pushed back against the idea that putting iron in the ground would somehow poison the food, which was a widely held superstition at the time."
As anyone who watched Dirty Jobs knows, Rowe has a puckish sense of humor and indulges in the occasional mild double entendre. Even so, Six Degrees is perfectly acceptable for the whole family.
Since it's a streaming show, parents can pause the video to do some research and have family conversations. Six Degrees is also great for reminding social-media-obsessed kids that being famous, having a blue checkmark next to your name or being labeled an influencer doesn't necessarily mean you're important in the grand scheme of things.
Says Rowe, "If I'm going to bring in a well-known name into Six Degrees, it's only as a way to shine a light on a lesser-known name."
Click here for the show's homepage at Discovery+, which features content from every media property under the Discovery umbrella, including: HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Animal Planet, OWN, Discovery, Discovery+ Originals, Investigation Discovery, Magnolia Network, A&E, Lifetime, History, Trvl, DIY Network, Science Channel and The Dodo.
Be warned that while Discovery+ does offer multiple user profiles, it currently does not have any parental controls, and some content visible on the home screen is from shows that are not suitable for the whole family. Click here for advice on how to watch on your devices.
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.