Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"I Thought I Was Alone": Thoughts on Sense8

You could probably run an interesting poll among genre fans to see which ones find the elevator-pitch description for Netflix's new show Sense8--a globe-spanning genre series from the minds of the Wachowski siblings and J. Michael Straczynski--an immediate selling point, and which ones see it as a reason to stay away.  I have to admit that I'm in the latter group. The involvement of the Wachowskis, whose recent work has vacillated between glorious messes (Cloud Atlas) and tedious ones (Jupiter Ascending) was cause for some concern, if also no small amount of curiosity.  But Straczynski, best-known for the formally innovative but cliché-ridden and self-satisfied Babylon 5, gave me some genuine pause.  It was some time before I could bring myself to get past my expectation of long-winded speeches and juvenile cod-philosophy and give the show a try.  I can't exactly say that Sense8 defied these lowered expectations.  It is a mess, and it is cliché-ridden.  But it's also not at all the sort of show I would have expected from Straczynski (whose input into the show's plot and central ideas is actually quite hard to discern) or even the Wachowskis (whose frequent preoccupations, for example from Cloud Atlas, appear here, but in very different ways than what I'm used to seeing from them).  Sense8 isn't exactly a good show, but it is an interesting and unusual one, and in ways that make it extremely worth watching.

Sense8 focuses on eight characters: Will, a Chicago cop (Brian J. Smith); Nomi, a transgender blogger and hacktivist in San Francisco (Jamie Clayton); Lito, a closeted matinee idol in Mexico City (Miguel Ángel Silvestre); Capheus, a bus driver from a Nairobi slum (Aml Ameen); Sun, a Korean businesswoman who moonlights in Seoul's underground boxing scene (Doona Bae); Kala, a chemist from Mumbai (Tina Desai); Wolfgang, a German criminal (Max Riemelt); and Riley, an Icelandic DJ working in London (Tuppence Middleton).  As the series opens, they begin to experience shared dreams and hallucinations, and to feel each other's emotions and physical sensations.  A mysterious stranger called Jonas (Naveen Andrews) informs them that they are a "sensate cluster"--eight individuals who are part of a single self, an alternate form of humanity that has existed, hidden, for millennia.  The discovery of their shared connection both interferes and aids in the various dramas going on in the characters' lives--Kala is conflicted about her upcoming marriage to a rich man whom she doesn't love; Capheus is desperate to get money with which to buy medicine for his HIV-positive mother; Sun is being pressured by her father and brother to take responsibility for the latter's embezzlement in order to save the family business.  At the same time, the cluster's awakening draws the attention of a sinister figure known as Whispers (Terrence Mann), who, aided by the authorities, seeks to hunt them down and subject them to personality-destroying brain surgery.

While watching Sense8, I found myself comparing it to Orphan Black, another present-set technothriller about a group of disparate strangers who are forced to band together due to a quirk of their biology.  The two shows share a slapdash approach to plotting, and a tendency to rely on broad stereotypes when drawing their main characters (of course Capheus's mother has HIV; of course Sun is a martial arts expert).  They also share the choice to build their storytelling around a central gimmick.  On Orphan Black, this is the fact that most of the show's characters are played by the same actress, who often performs opposite herself--an intimate device, whose success is measured by its failure to call attention to itself (how many times in the show's recently concluded season have I caught myself thinking "wow, Sarah really reminded me of Alison in that scene"?).  Sense8, on the other hand, goes large.  Its defining gimmick is the rapid intercutting between several vividly and beautifully shot locations (the show was filmed in Chicago, San Francisco, London, Reykjavik, Nairobi, Seoul, Mumbai, Berlin, and Mexico City, with different directors--including the Wachowskis and their Cloud Atlas collaborator Tom Tykwer--taking over directing duties in each location).

The logistics of this project were obviously enormously complex--because the connection between the characters allows them to appear to each other and even take over each other's bodies, the entire cast had to be present in each location, and many scenes had to be shot multiple times with different actors playing the lead each time.  As it is on Orphan Black, however, the result is more than just an impressive technical accomplishment.  The visual device at the heart of Sense8 helps to drive home the show's central theme of interconnectedness.  Its shifting between multiple, gorgeous locations contributes to the epic feeling of the story (even as the story itself lags in validating such pretensions).  Whatever else it is, Sense8 is never boring to watch.

It is perhaps for this reason that the weakness of Sense8's plot(s) doesn't really register.  None of the individual characters' stories are particularly engrossing in themselves, and some are barely stories at all--Kala, for example, could call off her wedding in an instant; the only reason she doesn't is an increasingly inexplicable unwillingness to hurt her fiancé's feelings and disappoint her ecstatic but ultimately supportive family.  Meanwhile, the thriller plot that surrounds Whispers's pursuit of the cluster is barely developed, even by the end of the first season's twelve hours.  (One of the few Straczynski-esque touches to the show is that he has announced that he has a five-year plan for the story, with the final episode already mapped out, perhaps explaining the first season's slowness.  This should also give prospective viewers pause, given how lukewarm the show's critical and commercial reception has been.  Netflix might give Sense8 a second season, but there's no way it'll give it another four.)  A season into the show, it's hard to say that very much has happened on it, for all its frenetic switching between storylines and repeated reaching for a sense of grandeur and portent.

And yet, Sense8 remains one of the most effortlessly watchable shows I've seen in a while, its twelve hours passing almost in a flash.  (It's interesting, for example, to contrast the show with Daredevil, whose plot problems were comparatively negligible, but whose final episodes were nevertheless a slog in comparison.)  The reason for this is clear--it's not just that if any one plotline bores you, another is sure to cut in, but that the characters from the different plotlines are constantly interfering with each other in unexpected and frequently amusing ways, involving, for example, Wolfgang's crime drama with Kala's domestic dilemma and Lito's identity crisis.  And, of course, if none of those can hold your interests, there's always a gunfight, a dance number, a car chase, a karaoke performance, or several very explicit (but decidedly non-prurient) sex scenes to look forward to.

Again like Orphan Black, Sense8 pretends to be about issues of personhood and identity, but doesn't really have much to say about them.  Just as it isn't actually believable that all of Tatiana Maslany's characters have exactly the same genetic potential, we never really buy that all of Sense8's leads are part of the same person.  (This, incidentally, makes it easier to accept that four of the cluster's members--Wolfgang and Kala, and Will and Riley--become romantic couples, which we'd otherwise have to read as not much different from masturbation.)  And just as Orphan Black uses an SFnal trope that it isn't really interested in to reflect on the issues that are at its heart--namely, female bodily autonomy and the way that it is often violated by scientific, government, and military interests--Sense8 uses the connection between its characters to reflect not on unity, but on empathy.

Being linked to one another doesn't mean that the cluster immediately knows everything about each other (in fact the season's only completed throughline involves getting to the bottom of the trauma that has left Riley so fragile and prone to self-harm).  Rather, it gives them the opportunity to get to know one another, despite their different circumstances and the distances separating them.  The best scenes in the series are the ones in which the characters simply sit and talk about their lives and histories, and through that talking, discover new things about themselves--when Nomi explains to Lito how she found the courage to be true to herself, or when Capheus helps Sun choose whether to sacrifice herself for her family.  The sensate connection becomes a metaphor for the power of empathy, kindness, and open-mindedness to overcome barriers of language, nationality, and geography, and to allow people--some of whom are disadvantaged by gender, race, sexuality, or class--to help each other, pooling their strengths, skills, and advantages and becoming a more resilient whole.  "I thought I was alone," Riley says to Sun, and this is clearly true of all the show's characters.  But together, they find companionship and solace even in their darkest, loneliest moments.

The only problem with this message is that you don't really need to watch twelve hours of Sense8 to grasp it.  That this is what the show is driving at is obvious already from its trailer, or a random gifset on tumblr.  What the show amounts to, then, is a lot of embroidering around this theme, not all of which serves it well.  It's one thing, for example, for Jonas to tell Will that ordinary humans' lack of connection makes them better killers, but when Capheus calls on Sun's help when one gangster is about to force him to kill another gangster, and she coolly slices her way through a dozen of the first gangster's henchmen, the show's messages can start to seem a little mixed.  And though the show clearly has a commitment to issues of social justice, and particularly the positive representation of queer characters and relationships, it also has some odd blind spots--as when Will, a white man, saves the life of a black teenage criminal, only to have his partner, a nurse, and a retired cop, all of whom are people of color, express the belief that doing so was wrong because the boy might grow up to kill cops.  Or the subplot in which Lito and his boyfriend Hernando's (Alfonso Herrera) life is invaded by Lito's unwitting beard Daniela (Eréndira Ibarra), who first sexually harasses Lito, and then, when she finds out about Hernando, immediately assumes that he and Lito are her new gay BFFs, exclaiming "I love gay porn!" and taking illicit pictures of them having sex, all of which is treated as cute rather than offensive and invasive.

Despite its forays into clichés and offensive tropes, one of the things that helps sell Sense8 as an exploration of interconnectedness and empathy is the breadth of its world.  The show is set in eight different countries and cultures, and though obviously I can't say how true any of its depictions of those cultures are (and in fact I suspect, given how frequently it plumps for stereotypes, that these depictions are flawed at best), what does ring true is the sense of their difference from each other, and from what we're used to seeing on American TV.  To watch Sense8 is to gain a greater appreciation for how narrow the cultural landscape that appears in most anglophone entertainment actually is--especially when those entertainments depict non-anglophone cultures.  How many other shows, for example, would set a scene in the Diego Rivera museum, the better for their characters to explain to each other Rivera's Marxist sympathies, and how these were betrayed by subsequent generations looking to monetize his heritage?  How many acknowledge the existence of streams of Christianity such as Russian Orthodoxy, Wolfgang's religion, or are capable of imagining an intersection of faith, secularism, and religious fanaticism that is completely different from how those forces interact in American culture, as Sense8 does in Kala's storyline?

There's certainly room to criticize Sense8--as others have already done--for fictionalizing its settings, and for often remaining trapped in a stereotypical, American perspective on them.  But to me that criticism is incomplete.  It ignores the fact that, alongside some obvious stereotypes, many scenes in Sense8 feature cultural touchstones that are obvious to the characters and to other people from their culture, but opaque to us.  When we flash back to Lito's birth, we see his family crowded around the TV watching a soap opera.  Nomi and her girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) attend a dance/spoken word performance about the ravages of the AIDS crisis.  Wolfgang meets a buyer for his stolen diamonds in a maze of concrete columns.  It's left to the observant or obsessive viewer to work out that these are, respectively, the finale of Cuna de Lobos, the most successful soap opera on Mexican TV, a real performance piece by Sean Dorsey, and the Berlin Holocaust memorial.  Even a viewer who doesn't pick up on these details, however, will take away from Sense8 the message that not everyone's cultural landscape looks the way it does on American TV.  That other historical events, religious observances, and cultural milestones might loom largest for people from other parts of the globe.

If you take a look at the current state of genre TV--almost all of which is dominated by superheroes or stories that don't veer very far from that template--a dispiriting picture begins to emerge.  Thoughtless power fantasies abound.  Stories that are supposedly about justice and protecting the weak only lightly conceal a might-is-right message.  Agents of SHIELD took a premise that could have been used to reflect on the seductiveness of ungoverned, unaccountable power and the ease with which it is abused, and turned it into a ratification of the fascist worldview.  The main character of the supposedly sunny and grimdark-free The Flash illegally imprisons the people he defeats without trial, legal recourse, or any hope of release, and his only comeuppance is to be praised for not killing them outright.  In this climate, Sense8, for all its flaws, feels utterly essential.  For a genre story to center empathy, compassion, and understanding, even in ways that are imperfect, is almost revolutionary.  So while Sense8, as I've said, isn't exactly good TV, it's so different--and in ways that so sharply reveal the shortcomings of our current genre landscape--that I have no hesitation in recommending it.  It's not surprising that the show hasn't enjoyed the critical and commercial success that Daredevil has, but, precisely because it acts as a counterpoint to so many of the Marvel show's thoughtless assumptions, I hope that it's granted a second season.

14 comments:

Michael C. Rush said...

>>Stories that are supposedly about justice and protecting the weak only lightly conceal a might-is-right message.

Well stated, and the problem not only with much of current American tv but with much of current American society.

Unknown said...

I might add "Lucy" in there as well as an example of a piece that begins with a SFnal idea and then promptly drops it (or at least makes no real attempt to fully explore it) in order to tell the (much more straightforward) story it wants to tell. I was really hoping for that movie, as well as this show, to say something more. Anything more.

It's interesting that the mainstream non-superhero SF that we're getting seems to only want to use its SFnal elements to introduce a story. Lucy, Sense8, Orphan Black all use their SF premise as a springboard to discuss something about the "The Power of the Human Spirit" (and I guess you could loop "Interstellar" in there as well, even though it was a more complete SFnal story, albeit a dumb one) and not really develop or deconstruct the SFnal ideas it uses as its springboard. And it's not as if "Power of the Human Spirit" plotlines are foreign to the SFnal genre, but it just seems like we're getting a lot of that with only a tiny bit of SFnal window dressing. I don't really know what that means for the genre as it's popularly presented.

-Trevor

Othelie Moor said...

I tried to watch sense8, but I just couldn't get into it. I gave up somewhere in episode 3 when I realized I had no idea what was happening and no interest in finding out.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Michael:

What's frustrating about that observation is how well-positioned the superhero story is to address some of the issues of systemic violence and power-worship in American society. The superhero is a figure who has the power to take on enemies that ordinary people can't deal with, so why not have them face up against unjust government agencies or violent policing? Unfortunately, most superhero (or superhero-inspired) stories perceive their protagonists as cops - and cops who are the beginning and end of the justice system, without courts, lawyers, welfare, or mental health services to deal with problems that can't be solved by punching things. In the last year in particular there's been a growing awareness that even good cops can't be the entire solution, and that many cops are not good cops. It'll be interesting to see how (or, more realistically, if) popular entertainment, and particularly the branch that tells superhero stories, responds to that shift.

Trevor:

In fairness, it's very rare for filmed or televized SF to be truly interested in exploring an SFnal idea, rather than using it as a jumping-off point for its plot (off the top of my head, I can only think of Caprica and The Sarah Connor Chronicles that did so). What makes Sense8 and Orphan Black unusual isn't just that they're using an SFnal premise to tell a standard technothriller story, but that what they tell us about that premise isn't what's actually showing up on screen. The clones on Orphan Black clearly aren't clones. The characters on Sense8 clearly aren't eight parts of the same self. I don't think that's necessarily a fatal flaw (though I would have liked the version of either show that actually seemed interested in its premise), but I find it interesting that two shows that are otherwise so similar also chose this similar approach to their premise.

Chris said...

"The superhero is a figure who has the power to take on enemies that ordinary people can't deal with, so why not have them face up against unjust government agencies or violent policing?"

The irony of this is that it's in fact exactly what superheroes were originally created for - Superman got his start in the business punching out slum lords, war profiteers and corrupt politicians. (Batman I believe has always been on his current "fighting crime" beat, but to be fair, crime and corruption can constitute their own unaccountable elites too - the Gotham City in Batman Begins doesn't function like any modern American city, but it would've been familiar to people in the 1930s, the era of machine politics and rising organized crime).

I think the fact is that superheroes emerged as a power fantasy at a time when the American people's faith in their institutions was at an all time low, but as time moved on and that faith grew back, superheroes had to move onto less subversive roles in order to survive, which is how they ended up being glorified cops.

Michael C. Rush said...

>>Unfortunately, most superhero (or superhero-inspired) stories perceive their protagonists as cops - and cops who are the beginning and end of the justice system, without courts, lawyers, welfare, or mental health services to deal with problems that can't be solved by punching things.

Isn't that the ultimate cop fantasy, unmitigated power to "get" the bad guys without additional layers of oversight and intervention that so often seem to get in their way? And many non-cops seem to have adopted the same view (whereas I couldn't watch an episode of "Cops" without becoming physically ill).

raz greenberg said...

I saw the first episode, and somehow I can't bring myself to keep going beyond that. It wasn't really bad, it just left me with a "who cares" feeling. Like Babylon 5, there's a feeling of a bigger picture here, but judging from the first episode, the individual pieces aren't interesting enough to carry it.

Christopher Souza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
zahrawithaz said...

Really interesting review. I enjoyed Sense8, though the early episodes were a bit of a slog, and like your point about the importance of empathy in the show and in the larger television landscape.

Perhaps it is the echo-chamber effect of the internet misleading me, but I have been surprised by the fervor with which it has been received. For a show that is pretty obviously fantastic in some spots (sensate interactions, certain set-pieces) and terrible in others (certain plot points, dialogue), it has a lot of fervent admiration. Which makes me think that it supplies something a lot of viewers have been hungry for & unable to find elsewhere; I speculate it's the unabashed foregrounding of character in a sf action setting.

I actually think your point about the show's attitude toward violence is much more important point and has been largely overlooked. There's something schizophrenic in the way the story decries violence on the one hand & glories in delivering large does of it on the other, and I actually felt that was one of the largest weaknesses--or that many of the others tied back to that.

Foxessa said...

Sense8 has been such a slog that days, weeks, and by now over a month has gone by before watching another episode. I don't recall which episode I viewed last but then netflix does that for me. :)

Also it is a global rave / Burning Man something or other. It is not located in the real world which most people inhabit, not even the 'little' ordinary characters in ordinary jobs like the cop or the crook. It reeks of the world-view for whom it seems climate change, loss of human work, etc. are never considered because they exist at the levels where they aren't affected by it -- the sorts that have always populated Gibson's novels, for that matter.

The so called natural world doesn't much matter for these are the sorts that are most comfortable existing in a constructed entirely artificial space, of gaming, television, graphic novels, trendy fashion and so on. I was thinking of Sense8 in this aspect, along with Ex Machina all this week in that connection as all the designer shops' windows are becoming rapidly inhabited with a fantasy of autumn fashion (despite we have cooling shelters and so on practicing right now due to the heat, pollution and humidity). More than few of these windows are centering the new manniquin, fashioned after the unclothed, unfleshed AI constructs of Ex Machina. Some of the windows have even left out the clothes the stores supposed are selling, leaving the space empty other than an artistically arranged collection of cyber limbs and a naked torso that reveals the inner working of the technology.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Raz:

Inasmuch as Sense8 can be said to have a plot, it takes 3-4 episodes to kick in. Everything before that is setup (this is one of the ways in which the show takes advantage of the binge-watching Netflix format, though obviously that still won't work for everyone). That said, it never becomes a particularly plotty show, and despite Straczynski's promises I have my doubts that the big picture is really that big. As Zahra says, it's much more a character-focused show. The big questions of the season are things like will Lito come to terms with his identity, or how will Sun and Capheus's legal struggles shake out.

Zahra:

A lot of the positive reactions I've seen (for example from Foz Meadows at Tor.com, or Matt Cheney on his blog) have foregrounded the show's handling of queer characters and relationships. It's not just that the show features gay and transgender characters, or that its sex scenes put an emphasis on eroticism rather than the male gaze, but that it so thoroughly normalizes the idea of queerness, making it the baseline rather than something to be explained and justified. (Though to my mind this message is somewhat undercut by the existence of two heterosexual romances within the cluster; something like the orgy in episode 6 strikes me as much more congruent with the show's take on sexuality, and particularly the cluster's sexuality.)

The violence thing, as you say, is an issue (though again, an issue that afflicts a lot of genre storytelling; Sense8 just walks into the problem a lot more blatantly than something like The Flash, which mostly just chooses to ignore it). If the show does get a second season, it's going to have to address things like Sun's utter indifference to killing, even though she's supposedly just a normal person who likes to box.

Foxessa:

I think that if you look at Sense8 in the context of other American genre shows, its commitment to showing a wider and more varied world becomes obvious, as is its interest in the natural world as well as the man-made one (natural landscapes play a huge role in the season's Iceland-set finale, for example). As the Nerds of Color review I link to points out, a lot of those landscapes and settings are made up of stereotypes and preconceptions, but nevertheless the simple fact of taking a film crew to those locations, rather than having a Los Angeles backlot stand in for anything from London to Nairobi, makes Sense8 a more open-minded, challenging piece of storytelling.

What I certainly would have liked the show to address a lot more, however, are issues of class. There's a nice scene where Capheus visits Riley on an airplane and comments on how lucky she is, and she counters that she isn't lucky, just privileged (and as we later find out, Riley's privilege, though very real, has indeed failed to insulate her from terrible misfortune). But on the other hand, Capheus is clearly of a completely different social class than any of the other characters, and this is rarely commented on. His storyline, for example, focuses on his need for money to pay for his mother's HIV medication, something that pretty much everyone else on the show - including the relatively lower-class Will - would have been able to pay for without even feeling the pinch, thus immediately short-circuiting his story.

Paul Weimer said...

This is really a test of the widget. I have sadly not seen Sense8

Ken said...

I can certainly empathize with wanting to support a show that caters the LGBT lifestyle choice but am unsure about whether a show that so blatantly expressed Christophobia via hate speech should go without criticism of its lack of tolerance in not celebrating diversity.

baeraad said...

I wanted to like this show, I really did. The premise is just so cool. And even the underlying idea - of shared humanity across lines of gender, race, orientation, culture and class - has a lot of promise. But in practice, it was just so... meh.

I guess the issue for me was that five of the characters felt like nothing more or less than vehicles for exploring a different social issue each, which made me feel like I was being bludgeoned over the head with the "FEEL SORRY FOR THIS PERSON!" stick without given much reason for caring about that person beyond their misfortunes. And the three remaining characters, the white First World types? They were even less interesting, because they didn't even have a social issue to represent, making them completely bland and pointless!

The only character I actually cared about was Capheus, and I am not sure I see what's so wrong with his mother having HIV. I know that Africa = HIV epidemic is a broad stereotype, but it's a broad stereotype because it is, in fact, a huge problem, and more to the point, it's a huge problem that I can't recall ever seeing even mentioned in any sort of fiction before. In fact, this is just about the first time I've seen a show that boasts "characters from all over the world" having an African character in the first place. It just seems a little early to complain about stereotypical depictions of something when that something just got depicted for the very first time, you know?

So yeah, I liked Capheus, who just generally seemed like a nice fellow struggling to make ends meet and taking care of his mother, very relateable and sympathetic. :) But I didn't feel up to sitting through the seven characters I didn't like for the one I did like.

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