The first three episodes of Sense8, the latest creative entry from the Wachowskis and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, were a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t sure where the series was going, but I liked what it was doing. This from past-Adam.
“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 (a cluster of eight individuals who can share memories, experiences, and consciousness) versus the institutions of humanity, particularly the medical establishment.”
It’s nothing new to see a science fiction story exploring alternative definitions of humanity. X-Men has been doing that for the last forty years. What sets Sense8 apart from so many superhero-style stories is an odd sort of optimism. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but this tonal shift away from matters dreary and morally ambiguous is a welcome change of pace.
Make no mistake, there are some profoundly dark elements to Sense8. This is to be expected when human evolution is at odds with state authority and an invasive medical establishment. I’m sure, somewhere, there are grad students frothing at the mouth to apply a Foucauldian discourse to the ways Sense8 explores biopolitics – particularly with respect to transgender issues – the panopticon embodied in an antagonist who hunts “deviants” after locking eyes upon them, and a stream of studies into power relationships. Fortunately for you lot, I’m not such a grad student. I’ll content myself with saying that the Wachwoski penchant for philosophy seems to have grown up a bit since the clumsy applications of Plato and Nietzsche in the Matrix movies.
The optimism in Sense8 is largely due to its subversion of the origin story. Evolutionary differences between humans and sensates may catalyze the series’ conflict, but the emotional core of the story is that of a deep and meaningful engagement with sensates as people. Not super powered people, not even “special” people, despite their talents. Just people.
Focusing on the sensates as complete beings slows the series’ pace from what one might otherwise expect to find on television. The first six episodes deal almost exclusively with individual character conflicts. Only in the season’s second half do the stakes escalate to something that threatens the sensates as a cluster. Even then, so much of the show’s richness is in its introspection. This will probably challenge the attention span of an audience accustomed to things moving at break neck speeds.
Yet the style pays dividends in dialing up the intensity of the character-viewer relationship, ultimately increasing the tension when bad things threaten the sensates. Likewise, the highly-functional interpersonal relationships the sensates bring into their interconnected stories develops even the secondary characters into robust beings. Whatever the series might lose from not explaining things to the satisfaction of every slack-jawed, CSI Miami fan, it more than gains in making the audience give a damn about its players.
Underwriting all of this engagement is a very simple message: we’re better together than we are divided. The sensates demonstrate what can happen when people are stripped of their secrets but given a way to truly understand each other. While this might result in the occasional psychic, pansexual orgy, it also drives home a message of universal understanding as the key to a better world. Again, this is not what audiences have come to expect from television. Narratives powered by genuine optimism are few and far between. Scruffy white men burdened with angst have become the new definition of hero. Sense8, with its incredibly diverse cast and emphasis on cooperation over competition, turns this formula on its head. And somehow it manages to do so without engaging my hair-trigger cynicism; this is no small feat.
I ended my first impressions review of Sense8 with a question: will the denouement of the first season prove worthy of the time invested? I’ll conclude this review by answering my own question. Yes, yes it did. Sense8 is the embodiment of the slow burn. It never wants for story or substance, but it doesn’t rely on singularly action to achieve either end. However, the action sequences are glorious in true Wachowski fashion. More than anything else, Sense8 wants the audience to care about its characters, and in doing so care about people in general – even if some people are assholes. This is a good message, and it’s one that science fiction from time to time. Collective angst and catharsis in form of The Dark Knight is a necessary outlet, but it should not be the end all and be all of popular expression. Sense8 is at its best when reminding the audience that hard times need not produce singularly hard works of escapism.