Netflix by Netflix: On “Sense8”
By Sijia LiMay 16, 2017
Created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8 has such an insatiable appetite for genre, it seems conceived to defy genre categorization itself, floating above the inundation of choice for entertainment. Though classed as a sci-fi drama, the show skips gleefully across genres, from Bollywood musical to cop procedural to European gangster noir. Its eight main characters are scattered around the globe, and together they pack eight interweaving story lines into one show. Each octant of the story pays such loving tribute to its distinct structural and stylistic codes that you could summarize each one with its own Netflix category name. The show’s sprawling story line zings back and forth between Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico, India, Kenya, Iceland. Too much stuff, says the show, is a good thing. The more stuff we see, the more we understand, and this spinning wheel of genres is an efficient tool for understanding the sheer diversity of human experience. Sense8 believes in Art, and Love, and Connection — and it believes with such a hard, thrumming fervor that, against all instinct, I honestly went back and capitalized those three words after I wrote them. Sense8’s octagonal structure is both a symbol of and cure for the decision anxiety that characterizes the streaming era. It’s a Netflix show that might as well be an allegory for Netflix itself.
The list of characters is familiar: Will (Brian J. Smith) is a Chicago cop with a sensitive side in “Action Thriller.” Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is a DJ with an Icelandic accent and a tragic past in “Critically Acclaimed Independent Emotional Drama.” Sun (Bae Doona) is a Korean businesswoman in jail as a scapegoat for her brother’s embezzling. She can be found in “Korean Martial Arts TV Show.” Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a closeted actor smitten with his secret boyfriend in “Romantic Independent Foreign Movie.” Capheus (Toby Onwumere) drives a Jean-Claude Van Damme–themed bus in Nairobi and is so sincere in the face of adversity that he can only be from “Oscar-Winning Dramas Based on Books.” Kala (Tina Desai) is a Hindu pharmacist in an indifferent marriage starring in a “Visually-Striking Foreign Film with Strong Female Lead.” Nomi (Jamie Clayton), a transgender self-titled “hacktivist,” can be found in “Gay and Lesbian Emotional Drama with Happy Ending.” And finally, Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) is a hardboiled career criminal lurking in “Gritty German Language Noir.”
The first season was released back in June 2015, followed by a special Christmas episode in December 2016. The premise is delightfully old school, like something from a Bradbury or Le Guin pulp paperback. Eight random strangers around the world discover they are connected by their special “psycellium,” a psychic nervous system that links them in a total empathetic bond with the other seven. People with this ability are called sensates, and eight sensates linked to one another form a cluster. They can feel what the other seven feel and know what they know. They can mentally project themselves to where any of the others are, which the show calls “visiting.”
As a made-for-internet show, Sense8’s content is a deliberate wink to the Netflix experience. For most of the first season, the show cuts between its eight main characters, like a viewer always pausing something halfway through to check their phone, or to start watching something else. Sense8 feels designed to foresee and forestall boredom, which it succeeds at most in the second half of season one. As the cluster begins to control their mental powers, the show becomes more fascinating. To show the sensates communicating on a psychic level, Sense8 relies on clever montage and editing to take us inside an eight-way psyche. Halfway through season one, it even offers us a sumptuous eight-member telepathic orgy (yes). Shooting the scene required eight actors, four continents, and seven countries, and by expertly sewing together shots of swaying limbs and blissful expressions, the sequence took a punch line and made it into an art statement. This is what it looks like to have an orgasmic overload of media, characters, and settings. Not switching between them, but watching them simultaneously — all together, all at once.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that silent pictures were the purest form of cinema. “We should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise,” he said. Sense8 takes this logic and runs with it, preferring often to use montage rather than exposition to find points of common experience. The show sees connectivity between characters as a surfeit of images. In Episode 10, for instance, the cluster all gather psychically to attend a performance of Brendel’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in Reykjavík. Riley, high on ecstasy, flashes back to the moment of her birth. As the orchestra swells to a joyful climax, the power of her vision brings the other seven back to their birth as well. The ensuing flashbacks look like an anthropological archive of international birthing practices. But flowing through each scene are images of water that unite them — a damp rag, sweat on the brows of women in labor, amniotic fluid, blood, a puddle of rainwater, a birthing pool, a swimming pool on a television screen, clear liquid pulsing through IV drips. As we cut back to the faces of the cluster, some are crying in silence. Water, the universal solvent, is the show’s favorite symbol for connectivity. The birth montage is a marvel of filmmaking at its purest, telling a story through images alone.
But Sense8 is not a work of “pure cinema.” In both its aesthetic and its idea of the potential of storytelling, it is profoundly televisual. Particularly clever is Lito’s memory, which nods slyly at the power of the medium. The camera captures a Caravaggio-esque tableau of a dark Mexican kitchen, a television screen on the left the only source of light. The telenovela is so engrossing that even the woman in labor is watching as she gives birth. The first close-up shot of baby Lito, the future actor, shows the television in the background. Onscreen, one character pushes the other into the pool. At the splash of water, the camera refocuses on baby Lito in the foreground, brought into existence by television’s holy baptism.
Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” to describe movies that jump between multiple personal histories and timelines to reveal some hidden connection. The meaning of the connection is revealed just in time for the thematic or narrative climax. The format itself is not new, though Sense8 is the only show with its type of fervent obsession for following this aesthetic of connectivity to its natural (sometimes excessive) conclusion. Love Actually (2003), Babel (2006), and The Big Short (2015) have similar multi-branched stories and large casts, but Sense8 actually writes hyperlinking into its plot, albeit with more science fiction jargon about psycelliums and frontal lobes. The show’s most obvious influence, in this regard, is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, adapted into film by the Watchowskis and Tom Tykwer in 2012. Like Sense8, the film overflows with optimism in human connection as the empathetic panacea for social ills. When a naysayer tells a character that his abolitionist efforts will only be a drop in the ocean, he retorts, “What is an ocean, except a multitude of drops?”
From Cloud Atlas, Sense8 borrows the water imagery and the postmodern intertextuality, but while Mitchell’s work uses a self-consciousness about its medium to question its own fictionality, Sense8 looks at itself and sees only the untapped possibilities of instant communication. In one scene, Nomi speaks to Will through their mental link from hundreds of miles away. Her girlfriend looks on, wide eyed. “FaceTime without a phone,” she breathes out in wonder. The magic psycellium in Sense8 is just a wireless router, providing internet on the astral plane where one can instantaneously upload and download the human mind. The cluster tap into each other’s lives in truncated bursts of attention, the way us mere humans send off texts or scroll through Instagram or, yes, watch Netflix. They use it as a relief for pain, for anxiety, for boredom. Being part of a sensate cluster, it seems, is like having free access to an eight-person group chat for the rest of eternity. And this, rather than setting up some tech-phobic critique of the internet age, is something like Sense8’s utopian ideal.
Indeed, the show makes a case for connectivity as the core of the human self. When Will first realizes he is not an ordinary human, Jonas asks him, “What is human? An ability to reason? To imagine? To love or grieve?” The increased empathy of sensates, he says, makes them more human than human. Conversely, we can make ourselves more human by reasoning more, imagining more, loving more. To do this, Sense8 suggests, requires other people. Its vision of the self acquires identity in relation to others. Any self that exists alone is a lesser being. To be folded into a social system — embedded into one’s true family or community — is the ultimate reward. The sensates’ connection to each other is a social system taken to its most extreme, an empathetic bond so intense they literally take one another’s place. But for the rest of us, the internet — and its infinitely expanding garden of TV genres — is close enough.
In the beginning, we put television shows inside a box, then we liberated them through VCR and remote controls, then we invented streaming, and television has never been less material and yet more intimate. It exists like a fine mist hovering in the air around us. Television viewers have been able to channel-hop for a long time, now, but never with the omnidirectional ease of today’s internet services. We can decide when and where to watch anything, on any device. Sense8 is a metaphor for this freedom of choice — it imagines a world where watching television is not passive absorption but active self-insertion from wherever you are. And it skips the worst part of the new freedom, which is the overwhelming level of choice. Instinct or divine mechanism decides who visits whom in Sense8. They receive inspiration or aid, advice about navigating the closet, incredible kickboxing skills, the ability to steal a car, contact to stay sane in solitary confinement, et cetera, exactly as they require them. Instantaneous streaming is like having a psycellium, the show suggests (only Sense8’s characters never make a wrong choice). Rather than distancing us from sensory reality, television gives us the power to reframe and possess the world on our own terms.
The show is never shy with this moral message. When a blackmailer leaks photos of Lito having sex with his boyfriend to the internet, Nomi’s girlfriend, Amanita, checks the news with adorable bafflement. “Why can’t the rest of the world see what we see?” she asks. Sense8 asks the same thing. Empathy, the show implies, is the key to overcoming hatred. There are homophobic attacks against a man who just undermined the public’s idea of acceptable masculinity? If only everyone could feel how he feels. If only we could all see what Sense8 sees (which in this case is how super-hot the sex is). If we could see how other people live, then we would be better. Better at thinking and feeling and behaving with compassion. When we are exposed to other visual realities, we offer ourselves up to a global interconnectivity that makes us more human. The internet isn’t making us lonely, it’s giving us the opportunity to never be alone.
On Sense8, this extreme empathy can seem like magical thinking. There’s a problem that the show acknowledges, but only glosses over: empathy seems to come at the heels of satisfied consumer demand. The cluster serve each other’s lives with such timely purpose that you have to wonder what their world would be like if one of them had nothing to contribute. What if one of the cluster, rather than a gorgeous thirtysomething with a bizarrely niche skillset, was an out-of-shape shut-in with a desk job? Or worse yet in Sense8’s world — a racist or a homophobe? Would empathy stretch as far as an unworthy product? Would this network be as transcendent if there were a few broken links or Phishing scams?
The issue never comes up, because just as you never have to watch a movie or show you hate on Netflix, the cluster never has to deal with such an unsavory person in close intimacy. The psycellium bond functions like the same complex algorithms that Netflix enlists to rank your likes and dislikes. The result is a puppy-dog world defanged of nastiness. Empathy exists for the select few with whom you are already likely to feel empathy. And by blocking out the other side, by setting a boundary around the distinction between the good “us” and the bad “them,” the show skews its own scale of morality. The result is a value-neutral ideal of empathy that fails to take into account how race, gender, et cetera, actually inhabit the real world. In one way, Sense8’s picture of humanity mirrors the benefits of the diverse and democratized televisual landscape; in another way, it shows a false utopia, narrow-cast and niche-marketed into meaninglessness.
After the photos have leaked, Lito’s now public homosexuality stands at odds with his reputation as the über-macho movie star, and he drives home to find paparazzi at his door and homophobic graffiti on his walls. The show tries to do what it does best and cycles between shots of each member of the cluster. The visual shuffle suggests that each one takes Lito’s place behind the wheel. Only, instead of seeing the gay slur, the shot cycles through each of their most hated words. The message is that everyone has their struggles to overcome, except that by showing them all one after the other, Sense8 suggests that these struggles are equal or interchangeable. Apparently, the word “pig,” for Will, bears the same significance as the n-word does for Capheus. As a statement about prejudice, it reads as oddly naïve. And, as a test case for Sense8’s vision of connectivity, it shows a shocking lack of empathy.
At its best and worst, Sense8 sounds like a presentation on intersectionality as delivered by a Labrador Retriever. Maybe thoughtless at times (it’s a dog), but so brimming with genuine enthusiasm that you can’t help but fall for its optimism (it’s a really friendly dog). Endorsing streaming television as a socially transformative force can seem like a bold move when tales of trolling and harassment make everyday experience on the internet feel more like an episode of Black Mirror than an open and affirming telepathic orgy. Sense8 is a loving paean to acceptance, and to learning acceptance through technological escapism. And why not? When your immediate surrounding is filled by hate and violence, the natural response is to look elsewhere for relief. Sense8 might not always be right about technology, but its optimism is viral.
In the trailer for the second season, a stranger’s monologue narrates over the action: “What we see is not what people saw hundreds of years ago. How we see changes, because our senses are evolving.” It recalls an earlier line in the Christmas episode. “What I see is art,” says Lito’s boyfriend, when he is forced to publically comment on their leaked sex photos. “Art is love made public.” As time goes on, we will only be flooded with more media, more images, more news. It takes a sense of hopefulness as strong as Sense8’s to see love as humanity’s future, especially online. But perhaps that’s why I found it such a welcome piece of escapism in 2017 — Netflix, unlike the news, exists in another world entirely.
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