Sense8: First Impressions

Whenever the chatter orbiting a TV show follows a path of, “this is stupid and doesn’t make sense,” my knee jerk reaction is usually, “are you sure the show is stupid? Perhaps you are the problem.”

Likewise, I think we can all admit it is incredibly fashionable to bag on the post-Matrix Wachowskis. Don’t believe me? Read some of the reviews for Cloud Atlas or Jupiter Ascending. Hell, you can read my review of Cloud Atlas to see I have no love for Andy and Lana’s recent work. But after three episodes of Sense8, I have to admit I rather like what they and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski are doing here.

So let us begin by addressing the loudest, and usually simplest, complaint I’ve heard about the series: Sense8 is hard to follow/confusing. Remember when Kevin Spacy yelled “wrong” at Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns? Such is my reaction when I see people bemoaning Sense8 for being too impenetrable. I don’t know what show these people are watching. The “why” of Sense8 might be hidden from plain sight, but the “what” requires at most one or two mental push-ups to comprehend.

I will admit Sense8 deviates pretty far from the mainstream in terms of telling a story. In fact, I suspect the “kindness is sexy” sign flashed in the opening titles encapsulates the series’ ethos. Sense8 is like a Voight-Kampff test. It’s a tale about the ultimate form of empathy: a story where eight people can literally step into each other’s shoes. The concept is, admittedly, unusual, and a far cry from the wholesome cornball shenanigans of Quantum Leap – the closest comparison I can muster. I’ll even admit the whole concept might be a little too meta for some people. All this said, Sense8 isn’t expecting it’s audience to have a PhD in metaphysics to get what’s going on.

In fact, Sense8’s character focused approach to storytelling shows it is trying to meet the audience half way. This is no small challenge for a series working with eight distinct character arcs. With that many plot threads in play, it would be easy to turn the show into a jumbled mess a la season three of Heroes. From my point of view, J. Michael Straczynski’s writing and the Wachowskis’ tendency toward highly nuanced visuals (which are often a liability) do a fantastic job with building a story around the characters. I’ll prove the strength of this approach through an application of the Mr. Plinkett character test (i.e. describing a character to a person who has never seen the show without describing what they look like, their costume, their profession, or role in the story.)

I’ll use Aml Ameen’s character, Capheus, as the subject of this test. Assuming each episode runs for 60 minutes and all eight of the Sensates get equal time, I’ve spent about 22.5 minutes getting to know Capheus. During this time I’ve come to see him as someone who is loyal to the people he cares about, perhaps even loyal to a fault. These bonds blind him to some realities of life, but this is the mark of most idealists; they see the world as it could be, not necessarily as it is. He’s also someone who has grown-up in a world rife with poverty, but he doesn’t appear to have been made cynical because of it. At the very least, he gives no indication of resenting his lot in life. All this said, there’s still a frailty to Capheus. Of all the Sensates, I think he will find the most inner strength in his connection with the others.

The point, I trust, is made.

If Sense8’s narrative objective is an exploration of empathy through human evolution into creatures of group consciousness, then its creative direction must, as an antecedent, take us to a place where we care about the Sensates as real people. They need to be as complicated as anybody who might be watching the show. Setting up this kind of depth requires time. Where I would be unwilling to extend this kind of leeway to most television shows, Sense8 is intriguing enough, and the characters are human enough, to make me want to give Uncle Joe and the Wachowskis the time they need to get the job done.

After three episodes, I can’t say I know what Sense8 is building toward. Nor can I be certain season one’s denouement will prove worthy of the time invested. What I have seen so far is a series interested in both people and the clash of collectives – in this case the gestalt of the Sensates versus the institutions of humanity, particularly the medical establishment.  On those grounds, I’m more than happy to see things through to completion.


About Adam Shaftoe

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