Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sense8 S2 Episodes 5-8

“Who can say if it is we that make the choice, or the choice that makes us?”

Capheus' line from the fifth episode gets at one of my favorite aspects of this show: the question of
what makes us who we are. And also how who we are can bind us to others from around the world no matter how dissimilar we might seem. It also comes in the moment I knew I was going to go all in on this show. I think the 4 Non Blondes singalong from the fourth episode was a landmark moment of the series, but the conversation between Sun and Capheus in this episode marked the true strength of the series for me. It's two people who couldn't be more different; Capheus an African man with an exuberant and outgoing, optimistic personality, and Sun a Korean woman who is more reserved and internal and strongly pragmatic than most of the other characters. They get together and they just talk. There's no running, no shooting, no action, no big time governmental conspiracy behind their conversation, simply two very different people talking and finding out that they aren't very different at all.

I love the conversation that they have. I love the sheer amount of "I" statements found in it. Sun's isolation and struggle to answer the question before her calls Capheus to her in spite of how much she wants to be alone, but instead of having some kind of "tell me your problems and let me offer a solution" moment, Capheus talks about his family and his history with his mother. Sun talks about her family and her last moment with her mother. And through these similar relationships and experiences, the two of them arrive at a solution for their respective problems. Capheus remembers the importance of keeping his promise to care for his mother through everything, and Sun remembers the importance of keeping her promise to protect her brother and father. It's clear that their decisions to work for Mr. Kabaka and to go to prison respectively will setup their stories moving forward, but for the time being, it's just two people talking mostly about themselves, finding their similarities, and wading their way towards a hard choice.

The way the show can strike a balance between these quieter moments, and the bigger more action based ones is to its credit. But the second act of this 12 hour long movie also exposes some of the weakness in the storytelling. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it exposes the very very fine line that I think the show walks sometimes successfully and sometimes a bit more wobbly. I talked in the last review about the pacing issues, how slow the show can feel through those early moments, and about when the show decides to release certain information. The biggest element of these in this second act comes in the form of the closure of Dr. Metzger's influence on Nomi's story.

It takes a full seven episodes before we find out who Metzger is actually working for. This information reshapes our interaction with Nomi's stint in the hospital from the first four episodes. He isn't some shadowy monster hired by her bigoted family to lobotomize her. He's a shadowy figure from a huge multinational conglomeration, BPO, who has been working to lobotomize senseates all around the world. That makes far more sense! Forgive my flippant tone here. In all honestly I do think that this explanation makes far more sense than the assumptions we were left to make before hand, but I also think the conspiracy storyline is the weakest within the show. But more on that in a future review.

This question of what information to release and when is at the heart of most storytelling. And the truth is I'm still not sure if I think Sense8 answers it properly. Telling us something more about Metzger when he was gearing up to perform the surgery would have changed my view of that particular story early on and helped things make a little bit more sense. It would have changed my perception of Nomi's mother from a cartoonishly evil villain, into someone who has her flaws but still honestly thought she was doing the right thing for her daughter. But having this information then would have eliminated the mystery aspect of finding it out here. So what's more important: giving your audience the information they need to make a scene make sense at the time, or preserving the mystery? I don't know that I have an answer to that question, but what is clear is that Sense8 chose the mystery and to a certain extent the first three episodes suffered as a result of that choice. If anyone couldn't make it through those episodes because they didn't have this information, then I wouldn't be able to blame them, but getting it here was a lot of fun and they certainly missed out.

There are two scenes in this collection of episodes that I think are just as much landmark scenes for the show as the singalong from the first act was. The first being the orgy scene in the sixth episode. It comes (pardon the pun) smack in the middle of the series (it's the center-most point of the center-most episode), and it is phenomenal. It's hot no matter how many times you watch, it's an unabashed moment of the producers saying, "Look at how beautiful our cast is," and it also answers one of those silly and simple but still important questions that sci-fi stories often have to grapple with: What's sex look like for these people now that they've been born to their new lives? The answer is hot, pansexual, international, and intense. And good for them! There's also something important about the fact that Sun, Riley, and Capheus are missing from the sexy fun times (though I can't really spot a solid reason for Kala's absence. Maybe she's sleeping). Lito and Nomi are having sex with their respective partners, Wolfie is turned on by a woman at the naked spa he seems to spend so much time at, and Will is exercising which we all know releases endorphins and gets you all worked up. So everyone participating in the mind orgy is already in that aroused headspace and get those emotions kicked up a notch by the actions of two members of the cluster. Riley, and Sun, however, feel sad and troubled at this moment. And Capheus is bored but trying to remain professional as he waits for his boss's daughter to finish her treatment. These three, even though they all seem to be awake at the moment the mind orgy happens, are not experiencing emotions that would allow for them to participate. Capheus at least seems to get a boredom boner while watching another Van Damme movie, but that's the extent of the effect. It shows, in my opinion, that the people behind the show are still really thinking about the deeper implications of everything they're doing. And this conscious and reasonable exclusion of specific characters takes a scene that otherwise might have been totally gratuitous and makes it an important moment of deepening the show's mythology.

But it also exposes one more potential problem with the storytelling. It feels like the producers know the portions of the story they're focused on now might be a bit slow and boring, and so every now and then they toss the viewers a bone to get them over the hump. Some of the action sequences and certainly the mind orgy scene feel as though they fall into that trap. They aren't wrong, per se; the story through this middle section of the show was especially slow and boring to me on this second viewing. But much as Game of Thrones often used sex and nudity to spice up what they thought was a boring exposition scene in their first season, Sense8 is trying to mask the fact that they couldn't come up with a more natural way to make the story engaging in its own rights by throwing sex at us as a distraction. I agree with the tactic here more than I did on Game of Thrones because 1) the scenes on Game of Thrones weren't as boring as the showrunners thought they were and therefore didn't need spicing up, and 2) because the sex here actually does do a good job of deepening the mythology of the show as I said. So if the distraction can still hold some level of importance, then I can't see a reason to fully dissuade them from using it. Though I would suggest maybe choosing a more interesting and engaging story for next season so you don't have to fall back on these tricks.

The other scene is Nomi's big action sequence towards the end of the eighth episode. This is the start of the other reason I think I love this show more after a first season than I do most other shows in the same time frame. One of the reasons I don't care for first seasons as much as I do subsequent seasons of a show is because I'd much rather see characters in control of their skills and abilities than simply learning how to get there. One of my favorite moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes in the finale of the fifth season when Buffy goes out back to kill a vampire like it's nothing and then walks back in to continue the conversation about how she's going to save her sister from a god. Vampires through the first three seasons represented a serious threat to the group. Every night offered Buffy a difficult fight, and the villains she was most frightened of (Spike, Drusilla, The Master) were all just vampires. But by the time you reach the fifth season, slaying a vampire is just "what I do," as she puts it.

While the senseates aren't quiet as in control after their first eight episodes, the start of that control is beginning to shine through. Will and Nomi are drawn together through their simultaneous investigation into the BPO issue. And so he helps her to escape when Whispers is coming for her. Her distress wakes up Sun who joins with Will's knowledge of basic police procedure to keep them informed of what's happening and to give Sun a leg up in her fighting with predetermined information. All of this is seamless, and when you consider that Sun hasn't spent much, if any, time with either Will or Nomi before now, you see that there's an ease with which she can come to their rescue and do her thing. Likewise, as soon as Nomi gets into the car and remembers that she doesn't know how to drive, here comes Capheus with his exceptional driving skills to help her out. It's a fun and important scene that showcases a taste of just what is possible through the senseate connection. If this is what can happen when just four of them Share with each other and use their skills to help one another get through a tough situation, then imagine what it will be like when all eight of them work in tandem. Honestly, I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that we won't have to wait for the realities of that too much longer. To give us the satisfaction of that in the midst of the first season is remarkable. And it feels, at least to me, like its happened sooner here than it would have in most other shows.

The other stories drag a little through these middle passages as the show works to setup the final moments. A lot of what happens here is clearly just table-setting of everything to come. Felix gets shot and ends up in a coma with Wolfie by his side. It's a tragic thing that stems clearly from their theft and sale of the diamonds in the first act; before he's shot, Felix is panicking about the fact that he tried to get in touch with Abraham and hasn't been able to. But there's still something that feels a bit more liminal about it all. I was invested the first time I watched it, and even still invested now, but it's not as satisfying as the heist that came before it and the action that will follow. So you're left viewing these scenes as what they are: an excuse to get Wolfie and Kala more time together, and obvious setup for what's to come in Wolfie's story.

The second act does at least represent the strong escalation of Kala and Wolfie's romance. When he shows up naked to her wedding (and shout out to the writers and directors for going with a full frontal male nude shot here when so many other shows shy away from such things while not at all second guessing the choice to show women naked), it starts the main portion of their story together. The track of their romantic relationship running alongside Will and Riley's is one of the things I like about the show. But in these middle moments it makes Kala and Wolfie feel more isolated from the rest of the group in a way that bothers me. I think the show has a slight problem with balancing who spends time with whom in the cluster, and that's hardly ever more glaring than in this story where Wolfie spends pretty much all of his time with Kala and she spends most, but not all, of her time with him. More on that to come.

With that being said, I love their rooftop conversation about her faith and his atheism. As an atheist, I tend to side with Wolfie here, but I also really enjoy seeing and hearing stories about people who do have faith and who have thought about their faith and the reasons they hold it and have strong moments in their past that connect them to their faith. The scene of Kala as a child looking out through Ganesh's eyes and seeing the festival and becoming a true believer is beautiful and moving. And her assertion that her love and belief in science is not mutually exclusive to her faith is a really nice touch. The show's continued work of making these characters deep and three-dimensional is something that should be applauded.

Sun's story finds itself starting in earnest while most of the others are at a middle. The scenes of her in prison are the best for the character. And the story of how these women have found a freedom and a sense of community only in prison, having been removed from the male dominated world they otherwise live in, is both beautiful and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Lito is also at something of a beginning for his story. The first act for him served as nothing more than character introductions, while the second act introduces the real antagonist and the obstacle he has to overcome. Lito's story continues to be my least favorite, but I think I'll save most of my thoughts on it for the review of the last act.

So through the first two acts of the show we've seen great character work, a solid foundation being laid, a clear process within the four episode arcs, and the beginnings of how in control and how strong the cluster is capable of being. All of which, I think, has been handled deftly and with a self-assurance that other shows don't have in their first season. Next week, we'll look at the way they bring these things together in the final act and maybe talk a bit about what I think of as the last reason I loved this first season so much: The show's strong sense of identity.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Sense8 S1 Episodes 1-4

I heard about Sense8 about a month or two before the episodes landed on Netflix. The trailer was intriguing, human, and sexy as hell. The buzz around the show was picking up quite a bit of steam on social media, and a lot of people I knew couldn't stop talking about how queer the show would be. Which, of course, was the first step in getting me to the point where I was more than excited to watch it. I started following a couple blogs on Tumblr about it, and everything I saw and everything I read from the showrunners only served to make me more and more excited for this show. I convinced myself that it would be the best thing on TV, and being helmed by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, how could it not be? Fast forward a couple months and the first season arrives. I spend a weekend locked in my room watching all 12 hours over the course of two days and it all turns out to be even better than my ridiculously high expectations. I finished the 12th episode with an immediate desire to go back to the first and start all over again. Sadly, the pending release of Orange is the New Black's third season put a slight damper in those plans, but I've just watched the first four episodes again, and I have to say, it hasn't lost it's appeal for me. I think I'm solidly in love with something new and Sense8 has quickly worked its way into my top five favorite shows ever. This is an important development for me because I generally hate the first season of everything. The groundwork and foundation laying parts of storytelling which are always so necessary just aren't my favorite. So I went back to rewatch them in an attempt to find out why it is that those things don't bother me about this show. Hopefully over the course of these reviews, I'll figure that out, or at least I'll just have a damn good time watching the show again.

In an interview he gave Collider (which is well worth reading, honestly; you can find it here), Straczynski said something that shaped my original viewing of the season:
I want people to watch all 12 hours, straight through. If you have enough time on your hands to watch all 12 hours, straight through, that’s the best case scenario. That being said, once we restructured for 12 episodes, we realized that it’s almost a three-act structure. It’s four-episode arc is like an act. So, you could do four and four and four. That’s one way to watch it because there are good break points in there. But, my hope is that they’ll watch it straight through. From our point of view, it’s really written as a 12-hour movie. Ultimately, that’s what it is. When you walk into a movie theater, you don’t walk out half-way through, and then come back the next day to watch the rest of it.
 On the one hand, this can bee seen as a showrunner trying his best to drum up business and get as many people in to watch his show as possible, thusly insuring they get a second season. But I thought of it as something more than that; I thought it suggested that they'd thought about this show in ways that you don't find people thinking about their shows before they air. It's something I lament in a couple of my reviews of the show Empire, they seem to just be going from episode to episode without much thought or structure to the season as a whole. But from what Straczynski said, I assumed that they started with a story on Sense8, and then discovered their 12 episode format around that.

The first three episodes are slow. I realized this when I watched it the first time, but I was engaged enough with the characters to overlook it. In this sense, the pacing felt deliberate to me. A lesser show would try to rush through the character introductions, lay that groundwork immediately, and then hit the ground running. Sense8 wants to take its time, savor the introductions, and try to get you to connect with these characters on a real level. That doesn't mean that they don't paint with broad strokes in the early going like most shows do. But that's inevitable so like with any storytelling medium, you have to give them a little leeway. Will (Brian J. Smith) is a cop in Chicago, and when he finds a shot black kid in a bad neighborhood, of course he goes to save him against his partner's better judgement and of course he stands up to anyone looking to stand in the way of his noble and heroic action. In reality, he's just doing his job, but within the current climate of our increased awareness towards police brutality, it's the show's way of saying "We know he's a white cop in a big urban area, but it's OK, he really is the good guy!" You roll your eyes a bit, but you keep watching.

This is because the introductions that are subtle are more impactful because of it. Kala's (Tina Desai) intro is that of an Indian woman about to get married and having doubts about that marriage. But what's remarkable about that is the way the show skirts around certain cliches. She is Indian, and she is Hindu, but her marriage isn't arranged. The man she's to marry is important, and dreamy, and he chose her, and went about his courting and proposal in the right fashion. Any woman would be happy to have him. But Kala isn't. The show doesn't try to explain why she's unhappy with Rajan in those first four hours. But it does make it a point to say that it's not for the standard reasons you'd assume this woman in this culture would be unhappy with her pending nuptials. In so doing, they immediately paint Kala as a real and complex person, and avoid certain racist stereotypes.

Not everyone is given the same amount of development in the same short amount of time that Kala gets, but there are eight of them, so is it really realistic to believe that they could? Instead, the show is willing to allow the rest to fall into place over the course of those first four episodes; the first act of the movie if you will. Which is exactly where that belongs. In the first two episodes, we learn about Lito's (Miguel Angel Silvestre) secret relationship with Hernando, Nomi's (Jamie Clayton) relationship with her mother and the specifics of her identity as a trans woman, Capheus' (Aml Ameen) difficult life as a bus driver in Nairobi taking care of his sick mother, Sun's (Donna Bae) strained family relationship and her precarious position within her father's company, Wolfgang's (Max Riemelt) criminal activities, and a few things about Riley (Tuppence Middleton). Admittedly, Riley gets the least amount of development in those first four hours in spite of her story starting off with the most action and suspense. Either way, it's eight characters with eight different stories all capable of being the center of their own shows, and yet we get a solid foundation for each of them in the first four hours. It's an ambitious feat for any series, and one that I think Sense8 handles as well as can be expected.

A portion of the credit for that goes into the way the show chooses to introduce and wrap up storylines. Two great examples of this in the first four hours can be found in Nomi and Wolfgang's stories. Nomi falls off of a motorcycle while riding with her girlfriend in the San Francisco Pride parade. She wakes up in the hospital to find her horrible mother still insisting on calling her Michael (her birth name), and partnering with a Dr. Metzger to force her to have a brain surgery she doesn't want to correct a defect she may or may not have. In the first episode, Wolfgang and his best friend Felix race against a rival gang to break into a safe and steal a nice amount of diamonds. It's a tense sequence in which Wolfgang attempts to crack a safe we're told is supposed to be uncrackable. They succeed, of course, and make off with the goods at the very last minute.

It makes sense to introduce these stories in these early moments. The scenes serve to tell us a lot about the characters in question and setup a lot of the story moving forward. And the impressive thing is how they're both granted soft endings in the fourth episode. Wolfgang and Felix steal the diamonds in the first and find a way to sell them in the fourth. Boom, that's done (of course their overall story is only just beginning, but more on that in awhile). Likewise, Nomi's escaping from the hospital and right out of Dr. Metzger's clutches by the end of the fourth episode, but more importantly it also marks the last time we'll really see her mother for the rest of the season. The actions and choices made in the fourth will have consequences for the episodes to come, but if you're interested in the story about this trans woman being held against her will and trying hard to have the people in power validate her identity, and protect her body and her rights to make her own choices about said body, well then that story's been told and now it's time to move on to what comes next.

The other thing that works here is balance; not every story ends in the fourth episode. Lito doesn't have much of a cohesive story in the first four hours, but what will be the major conflict of his story for the rest of the season gets started in the third episode with the introduction of Joaquin. As I mentioned before, Wolfgang sells half of the diamonds they stole and brings some portion of that story to a close, but the selling the of the diamonds only serves to bring more trouble for him and Felix in the long run. Likewise, Capheus finds himself drowning in customers for his van in the wake of the events in the third episode, which seems to signal an ending to his financial and professional struggles. But he's also immediately introduced to Silas Kabaka, a shady businessman who has exactly the medicine Capheus' mother needs and will of course ask Capheus to do something underhanded in order to get it. So where one story might reach an ending, another springs up to take its place and set the tone for much of the rest of the season. The overall effect is that you can stop after the fourth episode if you so desire, but the storytelling is so well planned and executed that you really shouldn't want to. When a question is answered, another question, just as compelling as the first, is asked and the cycle continues. It's simple storytelling 101 kind of stuff, but the deft hand they employ to make it work this early in the show's run bodes very well for the rest of the season and for seasons to come.

If it seems like all there is to talk about with this show is the human drama elements, then that's because at its core Sense8 is a drama. The sci-fi elements of the show are brilliant and important, but they really only serve to enhance the human drama and to offer some really cool kick ass moments. The AV Club reviews of the show lament the early episodes' reliance on ending on major action sequences. And they aren't wrong per se, but I think they miss the point to a certain extent. The first hour ends with Riley in a tense and bloody shootout in a drug dealer's living room while her friends try to rob him. The second ends with Will in a high speed car chase. And the Third ends with Sun using the power of the Senseate bond to "Share" with Capheus and use his body to employ her great martial arts skills to kick some ass. But to say that these scenes are nothing more than perfunctory action sequences to hold the viewer's attention through these slower moments is to miss the nuances of each.

Will's been having a lot of weird things happening to him, and at the end of the second episode, he meets someone who seems to have the answers he needs. The problem is that at the beginning of that episode he was told by a higher authority that this person is a wanted terrorist. So while the scene that follows is a standard action-y car chase through Chicago, the character motivation that fuels it is important. Will had to choose on the spot between his years of cop training and doing what's "right" within those parameters, and listening to his gut to get the answers he needs. He did what makes sense and as a result Jonas (Naveen Andrews), the one person with answers, is taken into custody. It's smarter than your average Michael Bay car chase. It's not action for action's sake, it's action for the purpose of greater characterization. Likewise, Sun's scene with Capheus severs the purpose of showing us what the Senseate bond is capable of. We get a quick rundown of the difference between "Visiting" and "Sharing" from Jonas after he's been arrested, but the fight sequence to end the third episode puts all of it into motion. We see how Sun's abilities can be used by Capheus to help him out of his situation. In the same scene, we also see Will imparting a bit of his gun training at the shooting range. This kind of thing is only possible from within the Cluster, and that fact will be very important later on. But for now, the show gives us these action moments in an attempt to show us these things instead of just telling us.

But as I said earlier, the first three episodes are slow and can be a bit boring at times. So while the action based endings aren't, in my opinion, solely about spicing things up with a little excitement, I do think that they have that effect. And it's a solid and valuable reward for sitting through what otherwise might be an hour of tampered enjoyment. But it all leads into the biggest takeaway from the first four episodes: Sense8 is not a sci-fi action show; it's a drama with sci-fi elements. This fact is brought home in the best scene in the first four episodes, and maybe even the entire season. That's the singalong to 4 Non Blonde's What's Up. It's a fairly standard 90's song that I don't have a particular attachment to, but it's impossible not to have a deep emotional reaction to the sequence. It's simply so very very human. Two of the cluster members just so happen to be listening to and singing this song at the same time (Riley on her mp3 player, and Wolfgang at karaoke), and that leads to it kind of vibrating through all the rest of the members and bringing them together emotionally if not physically as it does Wolfgang and Kala. I think this has less to do with the song in particular, which is a great choice and certainly resonates with the themes of the episode, and more to do with the sheer universality of music in general. I think it's something all cultures share, and having a deep emotional reaction to music is something I'm sure everyone's experienced at one point or another. So you know what the characters are feeling at this moment in time, and you know what it's like to be in a car with friends, or at a concert with a bunch of strangers all listening to the same thing and all feeling close to the same emotion because of it. This scene is the reason you watch through the first four hours. If you make it through the song and you aren't all in for this show, then I'm not fully sure you're all together human.

These are the things I think the first four hours do exceptionally well. What doesn't work as well are some of the choices on when to release information. Lito's story suffers from this in a visible way over the course of the first four. He takes Daniela to a movie premier as his beard, and when she presses for the evening to end in sex he turns her down. This in and of itself is actually a nice moment as it shows that Lito isn't closeted because he's denying his sexuality, he's only showing a straight face to the press so he can keep getting the action movie roles he likes. He's not cheating on his boyfriend, he's simply hiding him away from the rest of the world. It's not that that makes it better, but it does make his story feel different from similar stories on TV. But what fails is when Daniela shows up at Lito's place a few hours later drunk and making a scene so he'll be forced to let her in. What follows is a scene where she barges into his home, makes an attempt to basically rape him, and then runs up to his bedroom without an invitation to find Hernando laying in bed in his briefs. It's a scene that's played for laughs in a lot of different ways, as are most of Lito's scenes throughout the season, but Daniela's insistence and forwardness, which could have come off as nothing more than a female character in control of her sexuality, actually came off as predatory in a way that didn't work for me. If the genders of the two characters were reversed, it wouldn't be a funny scene at all.

In the next episode, we find out that the real reason she was acting that way was because she needed a place to stay since her crazy ex-boyfriend, Joaquin, is looking for her and she's just looking to lay low until things cool down. The truth is that she's in trouble and needs help, but since we don't learn that until after she's introduced to us as a raving, sex-craved, near-rapist, it's hard to have much sympathy for her. If they'd had her find out about Hernando in a different, kinder, fashion, it would reshape our view of the story early on.

Nomi's story suffers from the same problem. Her's is the one with the highest stakes in these first four hours since she's being held against her will and is about to be lobotomized. But the truth is that without knowing anything at all about Metzger, it's hard to take her story seriously. His introduction is handled in a fashion that suggests he's just working on her mother's orders and is looking to perform this surgery for no real reason. That's not the case, but we won't find that out for another episode or two. And when you couple the hospital's actions with those of the Nurse turning Will and the gunshot kid in the first episode away from treatment, you're left thinking that the writers just don't know what healthcare in this country really looks like. It's not legal for any hospital to refuse treatment to someone who stumbles in with a gunshot wound, and it's also not legal for them to hold a healthy adult woman in custody to perform brain surgery on her without her consent. Indeed, if her mother and the doctor wanted to force the issue, they could, but first they'd have to have her declared incompetent or otherwise incapable of making her own decisions, or prove she's a danger to herself or others before they could get that ball rolling. Again it's a situation where information given at a point after these first four hours will shine more light on these events and allow them to make a higher level of sense, but for the time being it has the effect of pulling you out of the narrative. Knowing when's a good time to reveal certain information can be a tough tightrope for a story to walk, and for me personally, Sense8 doesn't do a very good job of getting it right in these first episodes.

But the good far outweighs the bad, and it all left me thinking that sticking with the show would be worth it. And I was right. I think there's a confidence to the show's storytelling. It knows who it is in a lot of ways, and that's something I don't think you get from very many shows in their first seasons. Shows usually have to try on different stories and different scenarios before figuring out what story they want to tell and how they want to tell it. Through four hours, I didn't get the impression that that would be a problem with Sense8. So that's one thing I think this first season has that others don't, but it's not the only thing. I'll review the second act of this 12 hour long movie next time and dig a little deeper to get at one of the other important distinctions that I think sets this show apart and launched it into the space of my top shelf favorites.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

So You Think You Can Dance S12E1

Survivor is one of the longest running Reality TV shows. Clocking in at a whopping 26 seasons, it's easily become a TV staple that doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Part of its longevity is due to its two seasons a year format, part of it to its placement on CBS, and part of it has to do with the show's ever evolving format. The core of the game hasn't changed, and when you get down to it, no matter what you think of the show, it's a pretty brilliant game. Strangers forced to live together and work together to succeed are then forced to turn on each other to advance in the solo game, and are then forced to convince the people they turned on to give them votes for a million bucks. The dynamics shift so often and so completely that it can be hard to keep track of, and it's one of the few places where a person can be rewarded for what would otherwise be seen as despicable behavior. But while those elements remain constant over the years, the road to get there has often changed. The way contestants are chosen, who's competing for the 1st time vs who's back again, things like Exile Island, and the dynamics of setting up the original tribes have all be refined, included, and excluded over the years to keep the product fresh. That seems to be one key to making sure viewers keep coming back.

So enter a show like So You Think You Can Dance. It's a show where young people skilled in one specific thing (dance) get together and compete against each other for America's votes and the right to be named America's Favorite Dancer. There's not much room for improvement on the process. Which is probably why in ten years the only major change to the show's format has been the introduction of the All Stars. But coming into the 12th season of the show, we now have an all new format: Street vs Stage! And after this horrendous first episode, it appears to be as bad of an idea as I assumed it would be back when it was first introduced.

Basically, it seems to go something like this: The contestants are being split up into two teams. The Stage team will be comprised of dancers with formal training in the core genres this show is centered around: contemporary, ballroom, ballet, jazz, etc. The Street team will be self-taught dancers in Hip Hop and....well Hip Hop. I know that Hip Hop will ostensibly include things like Krump and Jookin which we get a nice look at in this episode, but let's be honest, on SYTYCD all of those things fall under the Hip Hop category.

It's horribly obvious to anyone who's watched so much as a single episode of this show that the Stage team will have an unbelievably unfair advantage. They're trained and well versed in multiple types of dance, they're being mentored by the great Travis Wall, and they're generally less likely to spend as much time outside of their comfort zones than the Street team is. What remains to be seen in this format is how the pairs will be formed once we get to the top 20. I have a lot of thoughts about the holes in that as well, but I'll reserve judgement until I see what the producers have come up with. Either way, in the 11 seasons of this show, only 3 Hip Hop based contestants have gone on to win. So one team starts out with an uphill battle ahead of them, and that fact should have been obvious to whoever came up with this ridiculous idea.

Also changed this year is the Judge's Panel. Gone is the staple that was Mary Murphy, and brought in on a weekly basis will be Paula Abdul and Jason Derulo. Abdul should be fine; she can't replace Mary who's high energy might have been grating to some, but who was always more than welcome to me. But she's knowledgeable enough to provide observant, if at times too gentle, critiques. Derulo might be the worst thing to ever happen to this show. He was useless, unhelpful, and too complimentary when he guested last season. This episode proves he doesn't have a dance vocabulary to be of any real use to the dancers. Ostensibly, you could say he was brought on to add a Hip Hop strong judge to the critiques, which will be useful under the new format, but I'd challenge you to give me one good Hip Hop observation he made in the whole two hours.

Instead, what Derulo offers is the chance to steal the spotlight and stage time from the people the show is actually about: the dancers. He gets up twice in this episode and goes on stage: once to sing, and once to dance. No one who watches this show is tuning in to see Jason Derulo. But what makes him an even worse judge is his obvious homophobia. Or maybe homophobia is a strong word, he doesn't make any beyond the pail hateful remarks, but he is clearly and unabashedly uncomfortable by effeminate men. There are two moments in this episode where Derulo's disinterest in feminine men shined through brightly, and both of those moments were so inappropriate and uncomfortable that it left me wondering if watching the season would even be worth it. Nigel's come under fire before for remarks that were just a shade too homophobic to have any place on a show like this one, and the big problem with Derulo being on the panel is that he gives Nigel a way to double down on that kind of behavior. I hate to stereotype too much; the fact is that gay men are just as capable of playing sports as they are of being great dancers, but the fact remains that SYTYCD has seen a large number of clearly gay contestants. So why would you bring in a judge who is seemingly so uncomfortable with homosexuality that he can't even be bothered to give the auditions by these people the benefit of his attention?

Of the episode itself, I'll say this: the audition process is lessened by removing the choreography aspect of the audition. Not everyone deserves to go right to Vegas, and not everyone who doesn't quite make the cut deserves to go right home. The choreography aspect of this stage made the complexity of the show and of dance in general more obvious. Either make it or go home is a process that works on American Idol, but not on here.

And as for the contestants, the only person that left a real impression was Jojo. If she makes it through Vegas, she'll be someone to keep an eye on. But what I really want to talk about is the rhetoric around Steven Ban's audition.

Cat starts with a rundown of what is needed to make it on the Street team, and then they cut to Steven. He's a young, lanky, white guy in glasses and with an undeniable nerd quality. This is something he embraces and plays up for the camera; the music he chooses even has a kind of video game quality to it. And it's all anyone can talk about: he doesn't look like your typical Street dancer. But here's the thing, he's actually good. He's not as great as some of the best Animators we've seen on the show. He's a bit static, and his pops and locks aren't as strong as we've seen. But his tricks and his quality of movement proves he knows what he's doing. In any other season, he'd be complimented and enthusiastically sent on to perform the choreography. Here, all anyone can talk about is how he doesn't "look" like a Hip Hop dancer. All of this is coded language for White. They shroud it in talks of him being a nerd, and he is certainly that, but when you get down to it, what it feels like Abdul is talking about when she says he "need[s] the rest of the 'stuff'' to fill out [his] vocabulary" is that he needs to be black.

The odd thing about this is that I don't know where to place it. Is it racist? You can't be racist against a white guy (this is not a point up for debate, if you disagree, I really don't care, it's a simple fact), but by implying that only black guys are fit to dance in this style, you're certainly implying something that feels pretty racist to me. Realistically, it's probably less about race and more about class. Hip Hop is urban, and I'm sure a white guy who clearly grew up in that kind of urban space wouldn't be insulted for trying out for the Street team. Indeed, I'm sure we'll see white people on the Street team, but more on that later. But even if it isn't about Race specifically, and it is about Class, it all boils down to something really problematic: the team makeup of this season is horribly limiting. The people likely to find themselves on one team or the other will fit into small boxes and it will be impossible to break out of them.

This isn't necessarily something new to this season. The Hip Hop dancers who've done well on this show have often been complimented on how well they dance in other styles for a Hip Hop dancer. This isn't often turned against the typically Stage dancers who then dance Hip Hop, or anything they aren't trained in. Contemporary dancers are generally expected to be good at Ballroom too. When they aren't it's surprising, but when Hip Hop dancers are good at ballroom, that's when the judges are surprised. My expectation is that given the increased number of Hip Hop dancers we'll see this season, we'll have to sit through a lot of this kind of thing, and I can't help but to wonder a bit what fuels it. At what point does "untrained" become code for "poor," and then an extension for "black?"

I don't generally review these early audition episodes of the show, but this year I wanted to change that because I wanted to get these complaints out of the way early. I think the best bet for this season, which honestly might be the last the show sees, is that the talent on display overshadows these format changes. And this is possible since the group of dancers seem to get more talented each year this show airs. And that's the claim to fame for SYTYCD. Viewers keep coming back to this show because they're certain to see even more talented dancers, even more breathtaking routines than they did last year. So while format changes might be what's kept Survivor fresh over the years, maybe this is one instance where what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander. Let other reality competition shows change it up each year; all SYTYCD needs to do is deliver on the high quality we've come to expect and we'll keep coming back.


--I don't intend on reviewing another episode until the Top 20 is set, so I should see you in a few weeks. Unless something really dramatic happens and I have too many thoughts not to make a post.

--There's also a review of this episode up over on AV Club. Oliver and I are pretty much in agreement on this one.

--The final tally after the first two cities is 43 stage dancers and 37 street dancers. We'll see how those dynamics continue as things move forward. On one hand I expect the number of street dancers to always be a bit below stage numbers, but this isn't a very big difference, so there's that at least.

--The power failure was a disappointing ploy for drama. Not that the producers created it just for that reason (although I wouldn't put it past them), but the resolution was a bit sad. Or at least the way they engaged with it was lackluster. I would have preferred to see more for this trimmed down, streamlined audition process.

--Or if that day of auditions was really going to have to be cancelled, then I would have liked to see how the show would have resolved that. I think the people who showed up would have deserved a chance to audition one way or another, and if that was just taken away from them, that would have been fucked up.

--Back to the point I made about the probable racial breakdown of each team. I honestly can't see a way around this ending up being the season of black dancers vs white dancers. It's possible that as the auditions leave the South (this week was Memphis and Dallas),  we'll see a bit more racial diversity, but if there's more then two white people on the Street team or two black people on the Stage team, I'll be shocked. This is a problem on a show that has racial diversity issues to begin with.

--The last performer of the episode was interesting. Not him, himself, because I can't remember anything other than his great body and nice looking ass in those shorts, but he was a contestant last year and Nigel asked him "Why do you think you didn't make the cut last year?" I can't remember ever hearing that question asked before, which is surprising given the number of repeat auditions this show gets, but I like it a lot. And the kid's lack of an easy answer means he probably didn't spend much time thinking about what kept him out of the top 20 and devoting himself to changing that aspect of his technique in order to be better this time around. Either way, it's a question I'd like to see asked more often.