Wednesday, 26 August 2015
[Some minor SPOILERS]
If there’s one thing I’ve heard screenwriting lecturers and ‘top tips’ articles bang on about, it’s the importance of a strong central protagonist. There’s definitely a lot to be learned from following this advice, but I’ve always enjoyed series with ensemble casts that zip from one character to the other – Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and Parks and Recreation, for example. Sense8, the latest series from the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, takes that idea one step further, featuring eight equally central protagonists who all live in different countries across the globe and, before the series begins, have never met each other.
How does that work, then? The concept is that the eight folks form a “sensate cluster” – they can psychically project themselves into each other’s minds in order to share knowledge and experience. For example, when the dude in Nairobi gets cornered by a gang, he can momentarily inherit the abilities of the expert kickboxer in Seoul, and she experiences the scene as if it’s her beating the crap out of the thugs. Then they can chat to each other about how awesome it all was.
Over the course of the twelve episodes, the eight come to terms with their burgeoning abilities and help each other out of a whole range of sticky situations. The intriguing concept is probed from a variety of angles, often with the particular blend of weirdness and innovation we’d expect from the Wachowskis at their best (and let's be clear, this is a big step up from Jupiter Ascending). Every episode seems to come with its own utterly brilliant, totally out-of-leftfield scene. The strangest sex scene you’ve ever seen! A musical number! Someone being knocked off a motorbike by a painting of the naked torso of Jean-Claude Van Damme!
But what prevents all of this from getting overly weird is the strength of the characters. All eight of the cluster could easily hold their own film, and some of the most interesting stories to be found are those disconnected from the larger conspiracy arc – the woman in Mumbai who’s agreed to marry someone she doesn’t love, the guy in Nairobi struggling to make enough money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother, the gay actor in Mexico City hiding his boyfriend from the press in order to protect his career. You’ll come to love each character individually, and naturally these stories do get very sad at times – bring a box of tissues to episode nine in particular.
The sci-fi elements are wisely allowed to sit in the background when stories are strong enough on their own, with the other sensates coming in when a character needs helping out or when their experiences can be paralleled. Relationships between the sensates develop, affecting things in everyone’s individual stories – for example, when that woman in Mumbai meets a guy from Berlin who she enjoys spending time with more than her fiancé. Really, though, the sci-fi concept is a very clever device allowing the Wachowskis and Straczynski to tell a wide range of stories which would otherwise be difficult to get produced – how many big-budget American productions deal with the difficulty of finding AIDS medicine in Africa?
And, similarly, how many big-budget American productions have transgender lead characters? The incredible diversity is one of the great achievements of Sense8; as well as featuring the trans woman and the gay man, there’s a whole range of racial identities, all given equal coverage. Importantly, these characters’ minority identities are dealt with sensitively and dramatically, exposing real and serious issues, but are never all that define them – Nomi struggles with her transphobic mother but also has cool hacking skills which allow her to help solve the mystery (the depiction of hacking isn’t much more convincing than in The Matrix, but who cares about that?).
It is perhaps a shame that in the (very thrilling) finale, it’s the most conventional hero (the cis, straight, white, male, American cop) who takes a slightly more central role than others, but that’s a minor blip in what’s otherwise one of the most diverse character groups on TV.
If there’s anything else to criticise, it’s that sometimes, in some of the more sci-fi focused storylines, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. If anyone followed what happens to the Icelandic girl after she returns to her hometown, please explain it to me in the simplest terms possible. But maybe that’s part of the utterly unconventional fun of Sense8...
Oh, and there are a few lines of awkwardly melodramatic dialogue here and there – Freema Agyeman shows up as Nomi’s girlfriend and has at least one line to rival her classic “Doctor, it’s Martha Jones, and I’m bringing you back to Earth!” for clunkiness.
Sense8 is a wonderful imbroglio of a show. It throws everything in – eight lead characters, action, tragedy, sci-fi, and that musical number – and somehow forms them all into a narrative that’s moving, very relevant, and thoroughly entertaining.
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