I have now watched all 12 episodes of Sense8, and overall it is getting a strong thumbs up from me. Of course I am very much part of the target audience. So let’s try to break things down a bit.
I’ve seen a number of people online complaining about lack of plot, or the confusing nature of the early episodes. It is worth spending a bit of time talking about the structure of the series.
Some TV series are entirely episodic. The original Star Trek series, for example, had almost nothing of a connecting theme beyond being Wagon Train in space. The modern fashion is for story arcs, and some series have a very strong one. Sense8 does not. There is certainly a long-term plot concerning the sensates and the evil Mr. Whispers, but that isn’t close to being resolved in this series. There are no distinct plots for individual episodes either.
What we get instead are story arcs for individual members of the sensate cluster we are following. Sometimes they interact. Will and Nomi are crucial to the story arc for Riley. Other times the characters pretty much solve their own issues. Kala and Lito briefly turn up to help Wolfgang with specific tasks, but mostly he’s on his own. Some character story arcs are still unfinished at the end of the series.
Obviously if you are someone who needs a tight plot and a satisfying ending then Sense8 is likely to disappoint you. I’m rather more interested in it from the show-runner point of view. It is nicely open-ended, and yet still has multiple interesting story arcs. It is also very much character-focused. Compare that to shows like Star Trek, and even Babylon 5, where characters mostly existed to serve the plot, and only developed when it was their turn to take point on an episode.
What about the science fiction content of the series? Well, there are no invading aliens, no rebellious robots, no rampaging dinosaurs. If you were hoping for those things you’ll be disappointed. Sense8 is very much about humanity: two species thereof. It is, if you like, a story about mutants, except that the only super power that each sensate has is the ability to communicate with, and share skills with, other members of their cluster.
So, for example, if someone needs fighting skills then Sun can turn up and do her martial arts magic. If someone needs computer skills then Nomi is on hand. Capheus is a brilliant driver, Lito lies smoothly, and eventually Kala got to show off her scientific knowledge. The cluster is, in effect, a group of 8 people pooling some extraordinary but not supernatural talents in a single being.
Except they are not a single being. Some of the write-ups of the series say that the members of the cluster are all the same person. Certainly they are all born at the same time, but they are all very much individuals. Wolfgang, by his own admission, is a monster. Nomi has criminal tendencies, though she’s doing it for what she believes are good reasons. Capheus has a strong moral sense, while Lito is something of a coward. As with their skills, the cluster embodies many different aspects of humanity.
That, of course, is part of the diversity theme of the series. The characters represent seven different nationalities, half of them people of color. They include a gay man and a lesbian trans woman. It would not surprise me to discover that Sun is asexual. Their careers include a cop, a banker, an actor, a chemist, a bus driver and a DJ. The whole point is that they gather together diverse aspects of humanity.
In episode #9 Jonas makes a short speech that I think is key to the entire series. He tells Will that a key difference between sensates and humans is that sensates have the ability to share experiences and emotions with their rest of their cluster. Humans, being isolated individuals, lack that basic empathic ability, and as a result are pathological and dangerous. It is a very Hippy way of looking at the world. I’m sure that Amanita’s mom would appreciate it. Being of a similar age, I do too. How well it will go down outside of California is another matter.
In addition, of course, we have the LGBT content. As I noted above, the cast contains a gay man and a lesbian trans woman. I’m not in a position to pass judgement on the former (see Matt Cheney for that), but the treatment of the latter is exemplary. Lana Wachowski (I’m assuming she’s responsible for those parts of the script) has managed to include some of the awful ways in which trans people are treated with making Nomi an important part of the plot for reasons that are nothing to do with her being trans. Plus she has cast a trans woman in the role. Jamie Clayton does a good job with the part. It is hard to see how it could have been much better.
There’s also something about the way that Nomi is portrayed that I hadn’t spotted until I read this interview with Jamie at After Ellen. She notes that the relationship between Nomi and Amanita is the most stable and functional one in the series. All of the other characters have relationship problems of some sort, or no relationship. The cute, loveable couple that everyone ends up rooting for are two lesbians: a trans woman and a woman of color.
As I have noted before, some of the other aspects of diversity in the show have been less well handled. That’s almost inevitable. The whole point of doing diversity is that you include as many different aspects of humanity as possible. The chances of the script writing team being as familiar with all of those as one of them is with trans issues are pretty much nil. When you are judging a highly diverse show like this, you do need to be aware that it won’t get everything right. I absolutely accept that some people in, for example, India and Kenya, might entirely understandably be annoyed at how their people are represented. I expect them to understand that I’m delighted at how my people have been represented. Overall, it is far better that the program tried to do all of these things than it did not try.
Claire Light has written a very interesting review of the series in which she points out that by recruiting a far more diverse production team — scriptwriters, directors and so on — the Wachowskis could have got a far better handle on the non-US aspects of the story. Like her, I hope they do better in subsequent series. I suspect that there is pressure on them to not make the series too hard to relate to for a US audience. The show has an essentially white American worldview because it is intended primarily to sell to white Americans. It takes bravery to move away from that, but some significant steps have been taken.
Sadly, I don’t expect the show to be terribly well received. As we have seen with the Puppies, any attempt to add diversity to what has previously been a straight white male preserve is seen as threatening by some. Equally others will say that they are just not interested in the stories of Korean bankers, Mexican actors, or trans people.
To understand how easily this sort of thing happens I recommend that you check out this blog post by Foz Meadows which demonstrates fairly clearly that the plots of The Matrix and Jupiter Ascending are more or less identical, and are equally wildly implausible. The two films diverge in that one is cyberpunk and the other space opera, but that doesn’t make a lot of difference. The major difference between them is that they are gender-swapped. In The Matrix the central character is male, and his concerns are male; in Jupiter Ascending the central character is female, and her concerns are female. As a consequence, The Matrix is held up as a classic of science fiction cinema, while Jupiter Ascending has been almost universally panned.
That, dear readers, is how sexist assumptions about fiction work. Those assumptions will affect Sense8 too. So while I accept that there are some very dodgy things in it, I still love it.
I understand that four series are planned. I’m very much looking forward to the next one.