What’s on TV? #02: Sense8 (Season 1)

USA 2015
Created by J. Michael Straczynski, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
Watched from 05.06.2015 – 08.06.2015

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! 🙂


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6 Responses to What’s on TV? #02: Sense8 (Season 1)

  1. Thor says:

    I did enjoy your review… But, your complaint that they over explain things, almost talk down to the audience, does clash a bit with the things you missed, which were explained visually. It was obvious to me that they connect with the speed of thought, hence the slowed down time. It’s a simple concept, but remarkably well done in the Wolfgang/Lito scene. Sun’s dilemma is explained very early on (dialogue with Capheus by the river). The sudden loss of connection is Riley getting completely lost in her trauma. I’m not sure I understand what it is you didn’t understand about the sharing…

    What I’m saying is they’re kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

    Explain eveything, people will say it’s too on the nose and condescending. Convey things visually and through sound, people will say it’s confusing.

    Still an interesting review though and I’m glad you enjoyed the show.

    • First of all, thanks for taking the time to comment on my review.

      Concerning my complaint of overexplaining things: One example that comes to mind right away is hearing Amanita’s voice after the fire in the hospital (“burning this place down”, something like that). And, as I said, it was less the fact that they did that, but rather, that it feels especially weird in a show that otherwise demands quite a lot from the viewer when it comes to paying attention. However, it didn’t happen that often, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me.

      As for your explanations: “Speed of thought”. Maybe. However – and correct me if I forgot something – but it’s the only scene where they freeze time like that. Even though there arguably would have been other moments where this would have come in handy too (like when Whispers was standing in Nomi’s door – just one example from the top of my head). For me, it seemed to be a decision by the creators which was mostly due to dramatic reasons (because otherwise, Lito and Wolfgang wouldn’t have been able to talk like that), but nothing that was in any way established as an ability. In all the other visiting/sharing-scenes, they happen in real time. So while your explanation is possible, I don’t really see that it’s substantiated by what we see in the series. Same is true about your explanation for the loss of connection. It’s a workable theory, but as far as we know, it might also have to do with Whispers, with the fog, or whatever ;). However, at least with the loss of connection, I’m pretty sure that we’ll get an official explanation in S2. Nevertheless, I have to say that I don’t like this idea that their ability to share/visit can be switched off like that – but will reserve judgment until we know for sure what was going on there.

      Sun’s dilemma was explained only in episode 4. Granted, that’s not that late, but still meant that she was the last one from the cluster where we learned what her problems were all about. As such, I had a hard time relating to her struggle in the episodes before, since I didn’t really know what was going on with her.

      Re. sharing: The best example for what I found confusing is the first fight with Sun, where she seems to act out the same movements in both bodies at the same time. Was this a fluke, or are they always doing that when they’re sharing their abilities? So, for example, when Lito lended his acting abilities to Wolfgang, was he standing around in his apartment in Mexico, talking to thin air? That’s what I was wondering about. Hope they’ll get into that in Season 2.

      Anyway, thanks for reading! 🙂

      • Thor says:

        I think, maybe because you spend so much time writing about movies and tv, you’re over thinking it. The slowed down thing was indeed for dramatic reasons, because it was the best way to convey the connection in that particular moment. You aren’t supposed to mull it over anymore than that. The loss of connection is because of her trauma, I’d bet my hat and shoes on it. It’s in the editing. It’s what the entire sequence is about, she gets lost in the past. As for the sharing and fighting, when Sun first connects to Capheus she gets so confused she’s hit, but then she gets it and he uses her powers. Doesn’t mean they do the exact same thing… it’s just that cuts between people doing the same thing in different locations, looks super sweet. Obviously Will doesn’t hit anyone when he’s visiting the prison, despite it looking like him and Sun are doing the same thing.

        If you look at the entirety of the show, it’s always about what makes emotional, visual sense, that’s just how the show rolls. Lengthy exposition scenes with people explaining the “rules” in pain staking detail, would go against what the show stands for. It’s fluid, not rigid, because that way they can do what the scenes demand, be it because people are fighting, singing or having sex. The many different scenes all the way through the 12 episodes, does an overall fine job making sense of their power.

        If you really want to look at small weird things that may break the “rules”, Kala’s rooftop being both a real place and a place she visits in her mind (a mind palace?), is one to look out for.
        But again, because it’s a mental, emotional connection, it’s really not something that bothered me.

        I was wrong about Sun though, thought that was episode 3 for some reason. Four is indeed a little late in the game.

      • Amanita: Exactly. “Sense8” is not a “one episode per week” show anyway, so I felt kinda insulted that they thought they had to repeat that line of dialogue ;). But again: No big deal, just something that I noticed, and which stood out especially because they otherwise seem to trust their viewers and don’t overexplain stuff.

        Hmm. I’d actually argue that I write about movies and TV because I’m overthinking stuff, and not the other way around ;). I constantly (over)analyze stuff, that’s just the way I’m wired. Which is why it’s not so easy for me to gloss over (possible) plot holes (case in point: The scene in the “Star Trek”-reboot where Kirk gets marooned on the same planet as Spock, and then even coincidentally ends up in the same friggin’ cave, drove me insane, while most moviegoers didn’t seem to care or even notice). However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t still enjoy something, especially if it’s satisfying on an emotional level (another case in point: I’m actually one of those who loved the “Lost”-finale, and thought that it was a perfect ending for the show. Yes, narratively it left some things to be desired, but it was extremely moving). In the case of “Sense8”, all that stuff is mostly nitpicks that only marginally affected my enjoyment of the show, but which I still found noteworthy.

        I’m not sure if I want long expository scenes either, however, I do believe that they could have done a better job at explaining how it all works even on a visual level. However, I agree that mostly, they did a good job explaining their connection and ability.

        I have to say, I really find your idea about trauma and being stuck in the past quite intruiging. Will be interesting to see if you’re right once Season 2 comes around :).

      • Thor says:

        Oh yeah, that Amenita bit was indeed a little weird. Especially because the show is meant to be binged. Would have made more sense in a weekly show.

        I wasn’t huge fan of that either.

  2. Hernando says:

    This review is too condescending to the show.

    Sense8 is so very shallow. I dare you to tell me what the plot is. Well… appart from 8 people connecting in the most uninteresting way, with the most uninteresting storylines each, there is nothing to the whole thing. Who is the bad guy? What does he want anyway? What are these people fighting? What are they running from? Why are they connected and how come none is interested in understanding the purpose of being connected?

    Why would they show 8 different cities in the world and then not do any research about the cultures they are portraying? It’s all cliché after cliché for each international character. So you get Korean billionaires making jokes that only an American teenager would think of. And the entire population of Mexico City speaking English the way Americans think immigrants at the border would. You can tell they spent all that money going to those cities for filming, while the writers never left LA.

    Anyway, that just made me a bit mad, but the REAL problem with the show is it is very implausible. Unrealistic. And I am not talking about the sci-fi bits, or the general idea. I am talking about the development of simple scenes and story-lines. All hard to believe or engage with. Nothing happens. The conspiracy is too feeble. The point of the show is nowhere to be found. It is 8 soap operas with no connection whatsoever, where nothing relevant happens. Some action films have the same problem, but at least they show lots of action and explosions, but this show is boring even in that way.
    The only thing I liked was that everyone turns out to be gay, which is a more fun absurdity than the rest of the whole thing.


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