TV Review: Sense8

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything about a TV show before. Reviewing movies makes sense because they’re self-contained stories. Most of the time at least. But reviewing a TV show usually meant reviewing single episodes without considering the whole overarching story. Mostly because most TV shows didn’t used have overarching stories.

This has obviously changed. Nowadays TV shows take on the form of serialized long-form entertainment. So we’re basically back at the point of producing Flash Gordon-Serials. Diametrically opposed to that, we have certain film franchises that stopped working as movies and whose individual entries solely work as a mere part of the overall experience of watching an entire series of movies. Think of The Hunger Games or any other young-adult dystopian future science fiction book series turned into a movie series. Or even Harry Potter. And now look at something like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. The differences between media seem to blur.

Now obviously there were shows that had scripted out overarching stories before. One of the best of them was Babylon 5, which had a very clear and definite plotline that was already conceived when the pilot movie aired on TV. Indeed, Babylon 5 wouldn’t even stick out in today’s TV landscape, but back then it was a landmark achievement and J. Michael Straczynski, despite severe setbacks during the production, managed to pull off this impressive feat.

So it’s no surprise that when he teamed up with the Wachowskis to write and produce a new show for Netflix, he’d do it in a manner similar to Babylon 5, where all the elements are pre-planned and all the themes the show wants to explore are constantly visible.

Sense8 takes the gimmick form the Wachowskis’ previous movie Cloud Atlas and slightly adjusts it in order to play out all the stories simultaneously instead of them being only thematically linked but being set during wildly different times. 8 strangers across the world are mentally and emotionally connected to each other. They can communicate with each other and feel what the others feel and even share knowledge if the need arises. And when they talk to each other they appear in whatever place the other person is right now. So if one of them is in Germany and the other in India, the scene switches locations several times during the conversation.

Obviously this means that there’s something “wrong” with them and they’re being hunted for some reason. So the central message of the series is to show people who are different and being threatened exactly for being different as they’re being perceived as a threat. And because this message isn’t already on the nose enough, the show further makes this obvious with the fact that the main cast is comprised of almost every configuration of human being possible. You have a gay Mexican actor afraid to come out of the closet, a female Islandic DJ dealing with her past, a lesbian American trans gender woman hacker activist, a Korean martial arts business woman taking the blame of her brother’s failings, a male German thief, a male bus driver from Nairobi being sucked into the local criminal underworld while caring for his sick mother, a very religious Indian woman coping with the fact that she’s to be married to a man whose father despises religion and finally, a male American cop.

On the one hand, I have to congratulate Straczynski and the Wachowskis for attempting to make this as diverse as possible. It’s really cool seeing so many different cultures and lifestyles presented to the viewer, though I imagine even in our enlightened times, the reactions to this very fact are going to be rather polarizing. The thing that bothered me about it though is that it feels like I’m being whacked over the head with this message about tolerance and inclusivity. It just feels like at every turn of the story, we have to be reminded about the facts that stereotyping and marginalization are wrong and that we should be more tolerant of each other. And that is not to say that I disagree with the message being sent here, I’m just not very enthusiastic about the methodology that’s being applied. Though I guess it is a testament of the times we live in that a show as blunt and to the point as Sense8 was made the way it was.

The thing is though that this heavy-handedness means that a lot of the show is very inconsistent. Cloud Atlas managed to take 6 different stories set in entirely different genres and eras that are only thematically linked and made it work. And I think Sense8 only underlines what a massive achievement Cloud Atlas is. Because Sense8 gets nowhere near as close to delivering the same type of holistic, cohesive experience. It tries to be clever to show parallels between characters in wildly different scenarios as another argument for tolerance and understanding, but so often it falls flat, because the styles just don’t gel very well. This is especially apparent in the many cringeworthy “comedy” bits that rob the individual storylines of their gravity. Another particular scene that stood out to me as being so silly to the point where it made me feel vicariously embarrassed for the creators (in German, we’d call that fremdschämen) is a scene where a bunch of the characters are in physically exhausting situations and the gay Mexican couple starts having sex. At that point all of the characters in these situations share the same locations and the sex scene basically turns into a massive orgy and it’s unintentionally hilarious to watch.

The thing that disappoints me most about Sense8 is that the premise is incredibly interesting. Sure, it’s less science fiction that I anticipated, and more rooted in pure fantasy, but that’s not really the problem. The problem I have is that, nothing gets explained or resolved. They’re being hunted for reasons that are never made clear by a character whose motivation is never explained. The mechanics of their abilities are never explained beyond “We’re basically the X-Men, mutants who are superior to the Homo Sapiens”. And at least to me, the story is preaching to the choir. I try to be tolerant and inclusive and I try to not marginalize people for who they are and for things that are beyond their control. I try to suppress my cultural biases when engaging with people from other cultures and in general I try not to be a dick. So a show telling me we should be more inclusive is pretty redundant. Coupled with the fact that the execution is very inconsistent, I can only give it an A for good intentions, but otherwise I have to say that it’s a mixed bag with a lot of silly moments that take away from the experience. That and the fact that show takes almost 4 episodes to actually get going. Much of the first few episodes is really just exposition and setup and as such rather boring and in the case of the very first episode, utterly confusing.

If you’re a bigoted asshole who has problems with homosexuality, transgenderism or people of other cultures and with skin that has different melanin levels than your own, I can wholeheartedly recommend the series, since it’s blunt enough to even penetrate your thick skull when it whacks you over the head with its message and maybe make the world a better place. But for reasonable people who are already aware that the universe doesn’t rotate around them and in fact doesn’t give a shit about who and what you are, it’s an exercise in being congratulated for basically being an alright person to begin with. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t have much to provide you with beyond that. It’s not a bad show and it’s mostly worth checking out, only to prove to Netflix that maybe we’d need another season to finally explain the reasons for everything that happens here, but it’s not something that’s gonna stick with people.

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