While here on my blog, I concentrate mostly on movies, the lion’s share of articles that I write for the german webpage fictionBOX are actually episodic reviews of TV shows old and new. Unfortunately, I haven’t got the time to translate and transfer them over to my blog; however, I thought that it could be interesting (and manageable, time-wise) to review whole seasons. Thus, after the one-shot review for the SyFy-TV-event “Sharknado 3”, I’ll continue this fairly new segment on my blog with a review of my most anticipated new show of 2015, “Sense8”.
Before we start, a little background information: I’m a huge fan of J. Michael Straczinsky’s SF-epic “Babylon 5”, which, to this day, still is my favorite TV-show of all time (from those that I’ve seen, obviously). I’m a little more torn on the Wachowski’s, which seem more hit and miss to me. I’m actually one of the few who quite liked the “Matrix”-sequels, but on the other hand, I couldn’t really stand “Speed Racer”. I thought “Cloud Atlas” was a masterpiece, while “Jupiter Ascending” was a huge failure. They continue their rollercoaster ride with “Sense8” which I found – pardon the pun – sensational. Now, before I continue: I understand everyone who has no use for it. It’s a very divisive and very unique show. Be it the occasional sex scene (nothing too graphic, though, so if you can deal with the nudity in “Game of Thrones”, you should be fine), the very liberal agenda, the sometimes in-your-face-edginess of it, the partially clichéd personal stories of the sensates, or the very weird mix in content and tone, I get everyone who tries it and says “Nah, not for me.” It also seems like a big deviation from the current trend in TV, which seems to get darker and darker with each and every season. Thus, a show like “Sense8”, which despite some tense, dramatic and even tragic scenes, is mostly about optimism and hope, and which features a certain amount of playfulness, glee, vitality, bouyancy and joie de vivre that is in stark contrast to the current TV-landscape, must necessarily feel like a tonal shift for which not everyone might be on board, and I totally get that.
I also have sympathy for the critics. While I actually loved the first hour, I’m totally aware that I’m in the vast minority on that, and that it has probably more to do with my weird preference for being thrown into a new “world” and getting to know new “people”, than with the quality of the kick-off itself. For some reason, I also didn’t find it overly confusing; I was much too enamored in the individual stories for that. However, since many viewers who later fell in love with the show also claim that they had a hard time getting through its extra-long first episode, you hardly can blame the critics for having a similar opinion. Also, I strongly believe that Netflix did “Sense8” a huge disservice by only providing the first three episodes in advance to critics, since many viewers stated that for them, episode 4 was the one where everything started to come together. It also features one of the best scenes of the whole season with the globe-spanning singalong of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”. I think if Netflix would have sent them the first four episodes, early word would have been much more positive. As for me: As I just said, I actually loved the first hour. I actually think that it was rather the middle part where the show started to drag along a little bit. By that time, we already had a good enough indication of what each and every personal story was all about, and where it would probably lead, but they took a little too long to start explaining the mythology behind the show, and also seemed to drag their heels in some of the individual stories. However, the final four episodes where absolutely great, and more than made up for that. Thus, “Sense8” is a show that demands, but also rewards, patience.
Is it perfect? Hell no. As I just mentioned, it takes a little too much time to really get into the overall mythology (as well as some of the personal stories; for example, Sun’s dilemma is explained rather late in the game, which made it difficult for me to really feel for her, since I didn’t understand what exactly her struggle was all about), and – possibly even more damning – once it does, I’m not even sure if I buy all of it. Some parts of the explanation seemed a little hokey too me, which is why all in all, I enjoyed the personal arcs more than the overall mythology. There are also some things left unexplained. For example, in some instances where they “visit” each other, or share certain abilities, they act out their movements, and sometimes they don’t. In a later episode, they suddenly kinda freeze time during their conversation, an ability neither shown before or after, nor explained. There’s also no explanation for a sudden loss of connection that happens during the season, and which seems to be only there to heighten the tension and the drama, but for no narrative reason at all. There are also a couple of scenes where it seemed to me like they talked down to the audience, or where they not let the scenes and/or images simply speak for themselves, which is especially weird – and contradictory – in a show that otherwise demands so much from its viewers. Also, not every idea worked for me. For example, Lito’s PMS reminded me a little bit too much of the much-loathed “Junior”. And some of the more brutal scenes seemed to be in conflict with the more empathic tones of the show. My biggest beef with Season 1, however, was the Sarah Patrell-mystery, which seemed to be totally removed from the rest of the show, and which was left completely unexplained. It just didn’t add anything of value to me, and in a show that already has no shortage of open questions, it seemed like one mystery too much.
However, in my book, the good ultimately far outweighs the bad. For one, I loved the international nature of it. I know that recently, TV-shows have become more and more international, but “Sense8” really is another huge step off from the recent development. I especially liked the scenes set in India and Nairobi, since they offered a glimpse into a world that’s definitely underrepresented in (US-)TV-shows (Berlin, too, but living in Vienna, that’s not too far off for me culturally). Also, having seen the show now I totally get why they decided not to do subtitles (as cool as that might have been), since roughly 2/3rds of the show play in non-english-speaking regions. Subtitling all of that just would have been too much. Also, the entire show looks absolutely incredibly. Again, TV definitely has come far in the last 20 years or so, but nevertheless, “Sense8” seemed to be a step above the rest. Their decision to shoot almost entirely on location (hell, even the scene on the plane was actually shot midflight!) definitely pays off, and as you can expect from the Wachowskis, it’s shot incredibly well, with the action scenes particular standouts. They also offer up some beautiful landscapes; especially Iceland looks absolutely stunning. Said scenes were even enhanced by the disparity between the beauty of the landscape and the bleakness and sadness of some of its content. It’s not just the visuals, though, the music is great too, be it the original score by Tom Tykwer and Johnny Klimek, or the songs chosen to accompany certain scenes. I shazamed the shit out of this show! What’s also crucial is that pretty much from the beginning, I liked all of the eight main characters. In my very humble opinion, there’s not one weak link found here. Same is true for the supporting cast, with Amanita being a particular standout. I’m head over heels in love with her, and she gets some of the funniest lines of the season, some of which almost had me roll off my couch with laughter. It’s also obvious how much time and care went into creating these characters. They’re not just there to get entangled into the overall mystery; each of them gets their own individual, unique backstory, their own struggle. Ultimately – and admittedly after a slighty bumpy road – all of this finally culminates in an incredibly tense and intense season finale which offered the finest hour of TV that I’ve seen this year so far (and yes, that includes “Hardhome”).
What really makes this show stand out, though – and where its goals and teachings are the most apparent – is in the scenes where the sensates connect with each other. There, “Sense8” takes the rules and possibilities of the modern world – with cell phones, the internet, Skype and so on, which allow instant connection (almost) all over the world – and heightens them, presenting an instant telepathic connection between those eight individuals, scattered all over the world. I love how their different upbringings, roots, cultures and so on are never an issue. These eight characters share a very specific bond, and in the way they help each other – sometimes with direct action (offering some of the best scenes the first season has to offer), and sometimes with simply being there for each other, listening to and sharing each others problems – “Sense8” makes a strong case for more empathy and compassion in the world. Its creators seem to want to assure us that none of us really is alone. That we are stronger together than we are apart. And how, through understanding and compassion, we can all make the world a better place, for us, and for everyone else.
As of the moment I write this, there’s no word on renewal yet (something that might change from now until this review is ultimately posted). And as much as I hope that this is more a matter of logistics and negotiations than of a general unwillingness on Netflix’ part, if this 12 episodes really should be everything that we’ll ever get of “Sense8”, then I’ll be able to live with that. Because as short as its run might have been in that case – and despite the lukewarm early reception by critics – it definitely has left an impression. There is a huge number of truly devoted fans out there, who have watched the entire run multiple times already, and right now, fans all over the world celebrate #sense8day (since August 8th is the birthday of the cluster). It is a community that, like the show it stems from, is grounded in mutual respect, empathy and understanding, spanning the entire world, and bringing together different voices from the most diverse origins. They come together to celebrate something that they all deeply care about. Their lives might vastly differ from each other, but they’re unified in their love for this show. If this should really be it, if one season is all that we’re getting from “Sense8”, I can’t think of a bigger and better legacy than that.
“Sense8” is currently streaming on Netflix all over the world. If you would like to get in on the discussion, I suggest joining the official Sense8 group on Facebook. If you’re interested in my thoughts on each individual episode, let me point you to the JMSNews Forums, where you’ll find short notes from me in the Spoiler threads of each and every episode (look for cornholio1980). Finally, in case you can read german, please let me refer you to my extensive episodic reviews of “Sense8” on fictionBOX.
Update: As many fans – me included – have hoped, “Sense8” was officially renewed on 08/08/15 by Netflix. Yay! 🙂