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.

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