Thursday, September 03, 2015

Sense8: A Rebuttal

Your TV Sluts have already reviewed Netflix’s Sense8, but with all due respect to my fellow bloggers, I’m here to offer a counterpoint. Rather than being a collection of disjoined stories that foists generic political correctness on the TV landscape, I submit that the show is moving, beautiful, and incredibly unique.  

If you’ll recall, Sense8 tells the stories of eight strangers picked to live in a house who somehow become mentally connected to each other. Each of the characters live in a different city and most live on different continents, as such the stories told are both stories about the individual characters’ lives, but also about the cities they inhabit. And of course, because nothing is simple, these eight people are also being targeted by a mysterious organization that wants to… kill them? Dissect them?  Mate with them? It’s unclear. 

Maybe they're planning on shooting the album cover for a '90s era alt rock band?

The action begins when one of these special people, Angelica (played by Darryl Hannah), kills herself in front of her sometime-lover Jonas (Naveen Andrews, reprising all the weird stuff about his character in Lost) because the mysterious Whisper is about to close in on her and if he does, terrible things will happen.  In killing herself, Angelica “births” the next cluster of Sensates, the folk who will make up our cast of heroes, and leaves Jonas as the (presumably) last remaining member of his cluster.

So who are the new cluster? Roll call!
·         Capheus (Aml Ameen), a bus driver in Nairobi who is desperately trying to get money for his mother’s HIV treatments.
·         Sun (Bae Doona), a financial executive in Seoul who’s relationship with her father and brother is strained after the death of her mother.
·         Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and hacktivist living with her girlfriend in San Francisco. (Said girlfriend is played by Freema Agyeman, of Doctor Who Martha Jones fame, btw.)
·         Kala (Tina Desai), a pharmacist in Mumbai who is engaged to a man she doesn’t love.
·         Riley (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ living in London with a tragedy in her past.
·         Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a locksmith and jewel thief in Berlin.
·         Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a closeted actor in Mexico City who has built his fame on playing tough, macho roles.
·         Will (Brian J. Smith), a police officer in Chicago haunted by an unsolved murder .

And therein begins the action as each of the new Sensates begins to see and interact with each across global distances.  As they each come into contact more frequently with each other, they begin to realize that they can not only speak to each other, hear each other, and see each other, they can become each other if they need to. Each Sensate can sort of possess the other and lend his or her knowledge, skills, and abilities to whatever the task is at hand.

This proves especially effective as Nomi is hospitalized early on and imprisoned by the organization that Whisper works for, telling her that she has a serious brain tumor that they need to remove but surely seems like what's going on is far more sinister. Nomi is the first to realize that she can borrow Wolfgang’s lock-picking ability break out of the hospital, Will’s knowledge of police procedure to out-maneuver a team of guards trying to apprehend her, and Sun’s experience as a kickboxer to subdue some of the more handsy guards.

The "I" in team.

Which is what brings us to what could be the hard line to cross for some viewers – despite an interesting premise and a wide collection of characters, the first five episodes of the show do tend to lag. Only Nomi seems to have much action central to the big mystery of the show while the rest of the Sensates are just sort of tripping out on seeing and meeting these other people that they’re connected to.

Sense8 is a product of J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis. For those familiar with Straczynski’s work on shows like Babylon 5 or Jeremiah will be familiar with his slow-burn approach to writing. The man is a genius at putting together stories that have long payouts but seemingly slow starts. This has been called Joss Whedon Syndrome, but it’s probably more accurate to say that Joss Whedon has a case of Straczynski Syndrome. While slow burns and long payouts can make for some mind-blowing experiences, they unfortunately ignore one of the central truisms of television: don’t hold back. As a series creator, you never know if you’re going to get to season five, so don’t hold off on your great moments in season one.

And yes, that means you always include a fight with a machete. 

But if the plot is, at least to begin with, less than utterly thrilling, the show more than makes up for that in the casting and the production design. To understand how incredible this show is, consider that each of the scenes were filmed on location. Chicago scenes were shot in Chicago. Nairobi scenes in Nairobi. For each character, we’re not seeing a studio set built in Los Angeles, we’re getting the real deal which also means we’re getting the real cast and crew from a diverse background. As such, this is as much a science-fiction/action story as it is a story about how interconnected the modern world is. In that sense, it’s very much one of the first real multinational television shows.  Add to that how lushly visualized it is and you can begin to appreciate the different storylines even more. The show is, simply put, beautifully shot. The picture is rich and cinematic and it feels far more like watching a movie than watching a television show.

But the real strength of Sense8 is the characters. Plenty of shows have token characters. It’s not that hard to find a show with the One Black Guy or the Cool Asian Girl, almost always used as set-dressing to back up the lives and experiences of the main white protagonists. Despite what Hollywood typically believes, you can tell stories that feature more than one person of color. And Sense8 does this in spades. The show has arguably 16 main characters. Of them, six are white, three are black, three are Indian, three are Latino or Latina.  Sun represents one of the only East Asian characters, however given how solitary her story is that’s unsurprising. Going further, four characters are gay and one is transgender.

That’s not to suggest that everything is perfect with the characterizations. Even with ten episodes, that’s not a lot of time to fully flesh out eight characters and some characters veer closely to stereotypes at times. (Sun’s kickboxing background is a good example of this, though at least she’s given a reason to be the one Asian person who is also a martial artist and it’s not just the product of “honor” or something.) All the more reason why I want another season from the show to help these characters become even more fleshed out.

Also, because seriously you guys - have I mentioned how beautiful the cinematography is?

What’s impressive about the diversity of the show is the fact that it was put to film at all. The creators have stated that the genesis of the show was thinking about how easy it is to make people into an Other and that the show was a way to illustrate how tribes form and what that does to humans when they suddenly realize they’re connected to someone different from them. And while none of the characters are expressly bigoted or hateful in any way (which is almost a shame because that could also have been an interesting story), half of the joy of watching these characters come together is seeing the beautiful ways in which they connect. A few of them are given sweet love stories; the meeting of Wolfgang and Kala, opposites if ever there were one, has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood romance. Riley and Will’s growing flirtation and attraction to each other plays off as less dramatic and sweeping, but still compelling. On the other end of the spectrum, the bonding that begins between Cepheus and Sun as two people who are so self-sacrificing to their families that it’s causing them a great deal of personal pain is a compelling story about how friendships can actually be formed without having to turn into something romantic.

The diversity represented in Sense8 is likely a reason for the divided opinion on it. As the nation is learning, it can very uncomfortable to look at representations of ourselves and see what’s missing as well as what’s on display.  And yes, this show embraces its differences. Ostensibly a mainstream television show, it takes pains to introduce multicultural themes that aren’t usually talked about. Kala’s devotion to Hindu-ism is a direct contract to her future father-in-law’s desire to eradicate old style beliefs from India, believing that they make the country seem backward. Nomi is presented as a comfortable, confident transgender woman who doesn’t feel any pressure to “forgive and forget” her mother’s ongoing brutality to her by denying her identity. In one particularly moving speech, a heartbroken Lito describes the first time he performed oral sex on his male partner and how that experience was spiritual and transcendent for him. These aren’t the narratives that make it into most television.

It's not all touching sentimentality. There's also a five-minute mind orgy that happens at one point. 

On August 8, Netflix announced that Sense8 would get a second season. August 8th is an important date in the mythology of the show. Nice cross-marketing there, Netflix. It also dovetails nicely with the title and the repetition of the number eight. The show has proven popular (it is the most pirated Netflix show created) but has had a polarizing critical analysis. It also has to be extremely expensive to film, given the Wachowski’s insistence on filming on location in each of the major cities with a little extra time in Reykjavik for good measure. But for someone like me who really wants to see more of this show, and more about shows with this level of diversity in general, the second season is a gift. 

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