Feb. 6th, 2016

mellowtigger: (break out)
The Sense8 web series is good. It includes some of the better ideas of "The Tomorrow People" (1973/1992), such as the importance that we do not turn away from the pains of life and culture, that we should find the strength to face them. Unfortunately, it also has a feature or two that will detract from its wide acceptance by some audiences. If you want a fast 74-second introduction, just watch the official Sense8 trailer. [some minor spoilers ahead]

Overall, this series is nothing like "X-Men". Instead, it is "More Than Human" (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon. It has a lot going for it. It presents individual people who would each be despised by other people in a different part of Earth and the culture there. It is female-friendly, with strong and intelligent female characters, even within cultures that don't appreciate them fully. It is GLBT-friendly, with both a gay male and a transgender female character who are meaningful and believable. It is religion-friendly, with a Hindu who doesn't back down from her faith while explaining it to doubters. It is poor-friendly, with a resourceful black man who lives in poverty with a mother dying of AIDS. The story briefly touches upon a lot of sociopolitical issues in its first season alone. It properly uses these issues as ways to show us the character of the people we may come to appreciate, without ever nagging us about any such thing as vague as "political correctness".

Sense8 characters season 1Sense8 is primarily (or should be) a social story. Humanity experiences a small evolutionary step in this modern-day story, one where some humans are connected telepathically amongst themselves. No superpowers, just shared experience. The first 3 episodes are quite confusing. It's an artistically-chosen confusion, though. We are to learn eventually about 8 people (the "sensate" / "Sense8"), but we are introduced to their lives in the same way they are introduced to each other... with seemingly random crossovers of experience.

In episodes 1-3, as their collective ability awakens, our scene switches from one person to the next while carrying over an emotion or sound from the earlier person... leaving the second person confused along with the audience. It's worthwhile to stick with the story.

In episode 4, we finally get all of the main characters together for one moment. Their first tentative full-group experience is a happy one. I keep rewatching this video clip because it captures the best that this story/series has to offer. It reminds me of an old adage, "A joy shared is multiplied", which hints at the significance of their telepathic connection that the whole world could envy. This scene leads us with the music "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes. The "perfect music for a lobotomy", as one character later puts it, and it plays while one of their cluster is handcuffed and prepped for unconsented brain surgery to destroy her ability. It's a happy-yet-terrifying moment that well characterizes the entirety of the sensate life lesson. The music shouts at us with the incomprehensibility of life (as they/we have experienced recently), the need for revolution (to confront the injustice that we encounter), and the optimism that we can survive and improve together. What's not to like?

In episodes 4-6, we finally begin to learn the rules of their ability as the sensates bond with each other.
  • The sensate humans experience a change in their brain structure (with accompanying migraines) that lessens the division between their brain hemispheres. This change supposedly leaves them less able to filter out thoughts and stimuli, leaving them more "in tune" with each other and with their natural environment in general.
  • A sensate "cluster" is formed amongst people who were born at the same time, anywhere on the planet. Our story's cluster includes 8 people from USA, England, India, Korea, Kenya, and Mexico.
  • Our story is told in English, but the sense8 understand each other in their native languages.
  • People within the same cluster can share the full breadth of their experience and talents with the other members.
  • People of different clusters can talk telepathically with other sensates, but only if they've looked directly into each other's eyes previously. This line-of-sight contact becomes an important plot point, exploited first by the stranger who is trying to awaken the cluster of our main story... also used later as a warning to avoid eye contact with another who is trying to destroy them.
All of these early episodes include more sex than audiences are accustomed to seeing on television. Episode 1 practically begins with a lesbian sex scene that will leave most audiences surprised (and potentially breathless). Episode 6 seems to make the argument that sex makes the world go 'round. That's okay. I'd much rather have healthy sexuality than unhealthy violence portrayed in entertainment. Except... there's a much larger dose of violence in this first series than I think it needed.

In episodes 7-12, the sensates grow more accustomed to each other (and we to them). Violence here is an unjustified trope, and this series would do well to avoid relying on it so much. Life for anyone is plenty complicated and difficult without it. This series does show us some part of that complication. Most humans, however, die in a world of despair, abuse, confusion, and neglect, not outright murder. Show us that world, and show Homo gestalt helping everyone overcome it. Violence is persistent but should be incidental to the main story.

Sense8 also doesn't shy away from the realities of childbirth. Episode 10 includes a controversial sequence in which each of the sensate's birth is viewed in messy detail. The detractors, I think, are missing some important artistic points:
  • First, Jonas Maliki previously tells the cop about Whispers being powerful and able to remember his own birth. It's a very subtle foreshadowing of this birth sequence, suggesting to us that maybe this cluster is as powerful as the one who hunts them.
  • Second, each of the sensates receives a subtle nod at their birth to a sympathy or challenge that pervades their life.
  • the musician born listening to musicthe cop born in a squad car
    the pharmacist born with Ganesha (approving of science) overlookingthe actor born while the household watches television
    the prisoner born while mother alone in graveyard then tended by strangersthe transgender born while mother cut open in Caesarian
    the thug born under water without a father apparentthe driver born in a wilderness without a father
  • Third, the scene ends when the musician who triggered this all-cluster experience begins to remember herself giving birth to her own child.
Perhaps a fourth point, the long scene is a general reminder that these sensates do not shy away from the realities of life as the rest of humanity is wont to do. How could you turn away if you had 7 other people reminding you with direct sharing of their personal experience? When everything is connected, nothing is separate that can be ignored as someone else's problem.

Sense8 was renewed for a second season. I'm looking forward to it.

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