Friday, June 12, 2015

The Lives of Others: Netflix's Sense8

Doona Bae and Aml Ameen in Netflix's Sense8.

One week ago today, Netflix's new fantasy/science fiction drama Sense8 became available, and I suspect most everyone who's watched past the third episode have already finished the season. (I also anticipate a good many didn't survive the first hour.) It is, more than any recent Netflix series, essentially a 12-hour motion picture of literally global scope. It tells the story of eight strangers from across the globe who are all simultaneously awakened to the fact that they are linked, mentally and emotionally, to one another. As each struggles with the dramas of their own lives, they must also figure out how to band together against powerful forces that aim to identify and destroy them for what they are.

Sense8 is also the first TV project from Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling team behind The Matrix films, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis are joined by television writer and creator J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). This unique team-up has resulted in a highly original and powerful television series, but its pedigree is perhaps the least of the reasons for why you should check it out. Critics has been decidedly mixed in their responses, calling the show alternatingly "maddening" and "beautiful," "confusing" and "poetic." It is, to be sure, at times each of those things but one thing Sense8 could never be called is "boring."

The eight new "sensates" are Will (Brian J. Smith, Stargate Universe), a Chicago cop; Riley (Tuppence Middleton, The Imitation Game), a Icelandic-born DJ in London; Capheus (Aml Ameen, The Maze Runner), a cheerful bus driver in Nairobi struggling to support his sick mother; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), a small-time Berlin safe-cracker about to make the score of a lifetime; Sun (Doona Bae), a Korean businesswoman/mixed martial artist in Seoul; Kala (Tina Desai, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), a Mumbai-based scientist and bride-to-be; Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre, I'm So Excited!), a Mexican film star who is keeping his homosexuality a secret; and Nomi (Jamie Clayton, Hung), a transsexual woman, blogger and hacker, living in San Francisco. Even in this paragraph, the challenge of keeping all those characters and their stories straight is clear: over the course the season's twelve episodes, the series not only has to build a new universe but also has to introduce viewers to eight ostensibly main characters, each with their own separate settings, supporting players, and storylines. To its credit, Sense8 introduces viewers to these multiple worlds, in a slow, deliberately painterly manner.

Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton in Sense8.

For the first several hours, some of these individual narratives get a fraction of airtime sometimes with certain characters, whatever the internal urgency of their own dramas, showing up on screen merely as witnesses to the other storylines. But, as with our group of eight, the whole turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative result is a single story that unfolds through moments of small intimacy and broad, impressionistic detail. I will admit that for much of the first three episodes, I didn't even know what I was watching but I kept watching anyway. By the fourth episode, I found myself fully embedded in the show's sprawling world.

The action behind the camera is as complicated as what is depicted on screen. Because of the globetrotting, multiple-location nature of the production filming took place on location in San Francisco, Chicago, London, Seoul, Nairobi, Mexico City, Berlin, Mumbai, and Reykjavík every episode has multiple directors. Though half the episodes are credited solely to the Wachowskis themselves, depending on the location of the scene filming could have equally been helmed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), or Tom Tykwer (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), or Dan Glass (who has been visual effects supervisor for the Wachowskis since the first Matrix sequel). The Wachowskis and Straczynski split the writing of the season, but each would also re-write the scripts of the other. It is a "too many cooks in the kitchen" process that threatened to be even more ambitious than the storyline itself, but the swift juxtaposition of contrasting, even conflicting tones, adds up to a unique, often meditative, viewing experience.

A single episode of Sense8 will offer a mix of locations, languages (though the dialogue is almost exclusively in "English", Hunt for Red October-style), cultures, and genres. And to be honest, often the different storylines and characters, especially in the first few hours, don't really seem to mesh well the painful drama of the hospitalized-against-her-will Nomi story and Lito's lesser-grade struggles as a gay-but-closeted Mexican action hero hardly seem to belong to the same series. (Lito is also most often the last to come to the party, as if his longstanding refusal to consolidate his two lives public and private also keep him from accessing the other selves inside him.) This genre jumping sometimes three or four competing stories within a 10-minute span can be jarring and probably alienating to many viewers. A single episode, for example, could juxtapose a scene of agonizing violence on a Kenyan back alley with a cheer-worthy scene where one of our heroes pulls out a rocket launcher to dispatch his enemies (as if Dirty Pretty Things were intercut with scenes from Snatch). I have a lot of sympathy for viewers that may find the show frustrating, and even exasperatingly incoherent. Still, that risk of incoherence is, for me, a risk well run. It comes in part from the Wachowskis general restraint with clarifying exposition or establishing clear rules of the game. Yet, as informative as they are, those few moments of exposition (often voiced through our cluster-of-eight's sensate "father" Jonas (Lost's Naveen Andrews), stop the story in its tracks. (I'm fairly certain, for example, I could have lived without knowing that the name for the psychic nervous system which connects sensates with one another is called "the psycellium.")

Freema Agyeman and Jamie Clayton in Sense8.

For all of its stylistic innovation, television has been preparing us for Sense8 for some time. Visually, if not philosophically, it reminded me of the British series Utopia; narratively, with its medical-research driven conspiracy story that doubles as a sometimes subtle, often not so subtle, meditation on personal identity, it calls to BBC America's Orphan Black. In fact, in recent years, biotech seems to be the dominant "Big Bad" is too many television shows to count (not only Orphan Black and Utopia, but also Helix and iZombie, for just a few recent examples). But where Sense8 truly stands out, even among those strong series, is in its human core: despite its ambitious, SF conceit of a still-evolving Homo sapiens species, it is the affective force of the details of these diverse lives that will stick with you once the finale's closing credits roll. Some of the show's most powerful moments of connection are also the smallest, scenes where (thousands of miles apart) a character sits silently next to another, demonstrating nothing but the sheer power of merely knowing that one isn't suffering alone. Or a brief scene where Kala "visits" Capheus in his Nairobi slum and they curl up on his couch to watch a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Or the moment in the fourth episode where all eight are unknowingly singing along to the same song (What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes) not coincidentally also precisely when the show finally 'clicked' for me a sequence that gave me chills, and one that series undeniably earned.

No doubt, Nomi's storyline invites comparisons to Amazon's Transparent and Netflix's Orange is the New Black, recent shows that have also introduced powerful transgender characters and stories to the small screen, but what is perhaps most notable about Sense8 is just how comfortable, almost blasé, the show is with those storylines. This also extends to its frank portrayal of sexuality, and romance in general, and the results are many of the single hottest sex scenes I've ever seen on television. (Sense8 is an "adult" series in every sense of the word, and if any Netflix show should come with a "Not Safe for Public Transit" warning, this is it. Note: if you're on a long train ride and think it's a good time to catch up on Sense8 , do not watch Episode 6. You have been warned.)

Sense8 is clearly not for everyone. In fact, with its unapologetic blend of genres and the scope of its multiple storylines, there is no doubt something there to alienate just about everyone. But for the same reason there is also much there for almost everyone to love.

The first season of Sense8 is currently streaming on Netflix. A second season has yet to be confirmed.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.       

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I knew nothing about this show. And I have resigned from Netflix after months of frustration trying to make it work. I may have to reconsider.