Friday, June 12, 2015

REVIEW: Netflix's 'Sense8' Shows the Beauty and Devastation in the Human Connection Across Its First Season

Netflix's Sense8 - Entire 1st Season Review

Eight strangers from vastly different parts of the world suddenly become mentally and emotionally linked.

It's hard to classify Netflix's new drama Sense8 - it dropped all 12 episodes of its first season exactly one week ago - as either a masterpiece or a complete train wreck. It falls squarely in the middle of those two categories for the majority of its first season. It's ambition in showing the global connection amongst a group of humans learning how to embrace one another is unlike anything else on TV. That ambition plays off immensely well in the scenes where the various Sensates call upon each other for their skills in a time of need or when they all share an emotional moment realizing just how strong this bond has become in their lives. And then, the show's often wooden dialogue and need at creating eight distinct storylines that rarely intersect thematically keeps the season from building to an effective close.

Everyone who watches Sense8 is going to have a different reaction to the piece. That's part of its appeal. Some will watch for 10 minutes and then tune out. Others will watch the whole season but only really enjoy the moments of reflection and action amongst the eight main Sensates. Others still will watch all 12 episodes and really enjoy the show's approach to individuality while still being connected on a global level and the characters' need to discover happiness in a complex, often unforgiving world. Because of Netflix's binge model, all of those variations of consensus can occur. That's what makes it difficult to tell if Sense8 is truly a success for Netflix. All the streaming service needs is a solid fanbase for this niche type of show in order to renew it for another season. And yet, that renewal hasn't happened yet. Every show that Netflix has ordered has gone on to produce a second season. There's no reason why that trend shouldn't continue - especially given the complicated ending to Sense8's first year. But it's still worth noting how difficult it is to gauge the success of this piece.

Overall, I was very happy with this season of television. And yet, I still recognize that it was a 12-hour story with several high moments but didn't really have a way to truly separate the episodes with thematic purpose. There was a natural flow to the season. But the episodes themselves weren't distinct from one another. The action sequences and emotional interactions amongst the Sensate cluster offered the series its narrative high points. But those were often scattered across the season with no real meaning as to why each moment was placed in the episode that it did. Everything did come together in a strong and powerful way in the end. That was the design of the season. The narrative of the season worked well even when the episodic story beats didn't.

It was a tad surprising seeing just how isolated Sense8 wanted its eight main characters and their individual stories to be. It was rousing when the protagonists where able to help each other in either physical altercations or emotional understandings. This connection that they share unites them in a way that is much bigger than themselves while also offering global awareness of the entire human species as a whole. The why and how of this story is never the show's primary focus. None of the characters have any answers as to how this connection is possible. Not even the ones who've been a part of an older cluster - even though Jonas, Angelica and Whispers largely speak in expositional dialogue. They just understand that it's part of the evolution of the human spirit. The characters and the audience just have to accept that this is just their reality now and they have to live with it - for better and worse. That was a strong way to handle the overall mystery. The show would have been bogged down if it tried offering some rational explanation. This way it allowed to keep the primary focus on the characters. Even though the eight of them often feel like they are living in their own show, there is enough connecting them together to make everything feel like it belongs to Sense8.

Part of that is the way that the series is directed. The Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, James McTeigue and Dan Glass are all credited with helming individual episodes. But the structure of the season makes it hard to classify exactly who did what and when. Everyone had an important hand in shaping the texture of this universe. It was possible to go from a festive Indian parade to a Seoul prison to a fireworks display in Chicago to the gorgeous mountains of Iceland with ease. Each individual setting has its own culture and identity. But the way that the camera often films moments gives the show its own global identity. All of these cultures and characters are distinct but there are still universal themes that bring all of them together. The Sensates may not ever fully understand what is going on in their worlds. But they do understand the emotions that others in their cluster are feeling. No matter how different these characters appear at first, they are still a part of the same human experience. They've been connected since they took their first breath. They each have had tragedy in their lives. But they all still manage to aspire to more in their lives. Things remain difficult for them. But this new connection allows them to build new ways of approaching life. The Sense8 connection doesn't destroy their lives like they first feared in the beginning when they just randomly saw foreign people in their everyday lives. It instead brings new purpose. At times, that is very optimistic. That's what helps set Sense8 apart from other conspiracy mystery dramas. These characters are distinct and fighting for themselves and their worlds in the face of this mysterious evil. That darkness may only just be getting started by the conclusion of the first season. But it's still rousing and powerful to see how quickly the bonds between the characters have formed and how they both need each other while also want to help each other in these incredible and dangerous circumstances.

Of course, there are some Sensates who work better than others. Each have their own lives and dangers to focus on in addition to the conspiracy working to attack them for what they are. It's weird that Will, Nomi and Riley are the ones often dealing with Whispers and the threat he and his evil corporation poses to all of them. Capheus, Sun, Kala, Wolfgang and Lito are much more fully invested in their own individual world and problems. Their struggles rarely feel the same kind of global stakes that the overreaching narrative actually builds to by the finale. But it was also important to establish these incredible lives for the characters around the world that isn't Whispers. For a large stretch of the season, Whispers is just in the shadows with characters making allusions to the threat that they pose to the Sensates. But it's never given any actual stakes until the very end when Riley is taken prisoner when she returns home to Iceland to hear her father play piano in the esteemed symphony. Will, Nomi and Riley are largely focused on rescuing each other from the extreme circumstances they are under. That's the element of the show to be expected. Some part of it has to focus squarely on the global conspiracy and the evil corporation. It's never strongly about that until the end. But those characters are the typical protagonists just trying to hold onto their lives and the people they love no matter what. The Will-Riley romance works immensely well even though they are somewhat bland personalities. Riley is able to slip into this massive depressed state at the end of the season just because the Sensate connection brings her back to the pain of her past in Iceland. It's an experience that is much more traumatic than anyone else in the cluster. But her emotional state at the end of the season just seems purely motivated for emotional and plot states. She needs to be captured by Whispers and rendered useless to the other Sensates. She has to come face-to-face with her past otherwise there's no point in introducing it at all. It's still not as engaging as the show would like it to be. But again, it sets Riley up to have much more emotional importance in the potential second season.

The finale, in particular, is able to get away with so many weird plot misgivings because it's just so damn fun watching everyone in the cluster offering up their skills in order to rescue Riley. It's incredibly risky for Will to go to Iceland and risk being captured or making eye contact with Whispers. That does happen eventually and Whispers is now in Will's head - which will make the face of evil much more significant in future episodes. But that's for the future. In the moment, it's thrilling seeing just how comfortable everyone has become with this connection and using their skills for a greater and more meaningful purpose. That's the emotional and thrilling story that has been building up over the course of the season. In the premiere, these eight characters are strangers to each other. Sure, some interactions are more memorable than others. It's also problematic with how frequently the show would use one character's certain skill over and over again. By the end, it felt like all Sun was good for was beating people up with her kickboxing skills. Sun, Will and Wolfgang were often used interchangeably when it came to assisting people in fights. There were distinctions in their fighting style. Sun is actually trained, Will has a police duty and physicality but still wears his heart on his sleeve, and Wolfgang is more of a monster who doesn't fully care about the consequences of his actions. All of those differences have purpose in the story eventually. But it's great seeing how those skill sets are used with more confidence as the story goes along.

This style of storytelling was always going to be a risky venture. Eight main characters is a lot to juggle. So some will have stronger connections than others. Some will be used more reliably. And some will bring more purpose to the overreaching narrative. The Sensate who worked the least in this cluster was Kala. Her story was dominated by her internal struggle of who she should marry - the man she was engaged to but didn't love or Wolfgang, who could cause her nothing but pain. That story really didn't work at all because it was so dominate about forcing a romantic coupling that wasn't completely necessary. Will and Riley were already filling that same function. Kala did have purpose. She was the show's entry point to religion. That's a concept on the show's mind - but only on occasion. That was too bad because starting a conversation about what all these characters believe especially now in regards to this connection could have been a very powerful force. Instead, Kala was largely left to her own world and didn't offer the other characters much assistance until the final two hours where suddenly the creative team remembered that she was a scientist and could present the other characters with different options for getting out of their crazy situations.

Similarly, Wolfgang and Lito rarely made contributions to the rest of the cluster. Their stories largely existed by themselves - with Wolgang in an action heist movie and Lito in a black comedy about sexual orientation and the cost of fame. They each offered moments of amusement. Every time the action cut to Lito's movie set, it was great seeing all the ridiculous strings that go into creating those moments. Similarly, it's rousing when Wolfgang pulls a missile launcher out of this car and kills his enemies who critically injured his best friend. And yet, their emotional bonds with the other Sensates didn't really kick in until the second half of the season. The conversation between Lito and Nomi at the art museum was one of the emotional highlights. It was so powerful and came at a point where both of them were at an emotional crossroads. And then, Lito and Wolfgang were allowed to help one another out with their acting and fighting abilities when things got more tense in their own worlds.

Sense8 is at its most playful and fun when it's finding new ways for its character to bounce off each other - whether it's through just visiting or actually sharing bodies. Those intimate bonds of actions truly begin at the end of the third episode where Capheus is relying on Will and Sun in order to attack the people who robbed the 'Van Damn.' In fact, so much joy and affection comes out of Capheus. He is in one of the darker stories of the season. He doesn't know how much longer he will be able to fend off these criminal elements while still caring for his sick mother. And yet, he always has a smile on his face and vastly loves seeing the world and its enormous beauty when visiting the other Sensates. He sees the miracle in flying when Riley is too focused on the trauma of the past. He joins Will and Sun in enjoying the spectacle of fireworks. But when the moment calls for it, he is able to offer vehicular assistance whenever the other Sensates need it. Sure, it's fantastic and ridiculous in the eighth episode when he's helping Nomi escape Whispers and almost flips the car over. But that's what adds to the delight and fun of the show. He can bring clarity, fun and amusement to the others in times when they desperately need it. Everyone else can then enjoy an orgy set in multiple locations with various partners. That sequence was the show at its most abstract. But it still spoke to the connection that everyone can relate to in a way that enriches the whole experience.

The Sensate connection has been apparent within these eight characters since the day they were born. They were all born on the same day. But as the tenth episode points out, they all came into this world in vastly different worlds. Some were triumphant and miraculous. Others were unexpected. And others were completely void of emotion. These characters can feel all of those beginnings. They can understand the pasts and presents of everyone in the cluster. That unifies them in a way that makes the big scene at the symphony so emotional and empowering. It also makes it overwhelming. Most are overwhelmed with joy while Riley is just overwhelmed to the point that it's destruction to her body. That's the moment when evil can strike. That devastation occurs during one of the most beautiful and thrilling sequences of the season.

That's the statement that can sum up Sense8 for all that it is. Each of these characters see beauty and pain in not only their individual world but in the worlds of the other seven people. It's a bond that empowers their lives even in the face of uncertainty and the prospect of seeming crazy. They all have an individual voice. But the season in the end pointed out the unifying one. Even though they are still some major narrative problems with the structure of the season, that concept of global unity is what brings the characters together in a strong way. That bond is what makes the show worth watching.