When I was a drama major at the UofG, we sometimes spoke of “theatre value”: the extent to which the story being told had to be told through theatre, and could not be told as effectively, as successfully, in another medium.
What Sense8 gets very, very right, is its grasp of an equivalent principle: “television value”, the extent to which its story must be told through the medium of television. Or to be more specific, the medium of an internet-based video-streaming television service. In fact I think the show’s television value will change the nature of television.
Before I begin: a quick note about what the show is about. It’s the story of eight people, very different from each other, living in seven different countries around the world, who share each other’s memories, feelings, thoughts, sensory experiences, and sometimes specialized skills. There’s a computer hacker, a business executive, an actor, a criminal, a scientist, a police officer, a bus driver, and a DJ: the spread of complimentary skills makes them a kind of modern-day D&D adventuring party, really. Finally, it’s the product of JMS and The Wachowskis, whose previous sci-fi credits include Babylon 5 and The Matrix. Here’s the trailer:
Here are a few reasons why I think this show will change the nature of television.
First, it is stunningly beautiful just to look at. The first moment when this occurred to me was in an early episode when Daniela Velasquez storms into Lito’s bedroom where she discovers that he’s gay. The frame has Lito’s boyfriend Alfonso in one half of the frame, lying on the bed, very calm and cool and perfectly happy to have been discovered, and Lito’s face in close-up in the other half of the frame, laughing desperately and crying at the same time. A frame like that belongs in an art gallery. Sense8 tells most of its story through framed images like that. I sometimes got the impression that the narrative and dialogue served only to add value to the visual frames. One might say that this means the show is giving short shrift to its narrative. A more charitable interpretation might be: the show is using images and sounds to tell its story, not just dialogue alone. It’s a “sensual” show, in the “sense” that it’s engaging one’s artistic and musical sensibilities, one’s eyes and ears, and not just one’s capacity to follow the logic of a dialogue-driven narrative. This is something film and television can do, very very well.
Second point about television value: time. Even before the advent of internet video streaming, the average American was watching between five and eight hours of television every day. Now that we have internet streaming services like Netflix, we can spend those same five to eight hours watching just one show. (That’s how I watched it: I took in four episodes at a time, over three nights.) This makes the experience of the show more “immersive”. Moreover: freed from the time constraints of broadcast television, a show doesn’t have to be exactly 42 minutes long. It can be exactly as long as it needs to be, to tell the story well. It doesn’t have to have pointless mini-cliffhangers just before a commercial break. In fact the show doesn’t have to be interrupted by commercials at all– again, making the experience more immersive. This makes television viewing a far more pleasurable experience.
This leads to my third point: Sense8 is a very “slow burn”: something that works best when you have several hours at once to spare for TV time. The pilot episode, “Limbic Resonance”, does not introduce heroes, settings, crises, and villains in the usual way. It assumes that viewers have the patience to figure these things out for themselves after taking in a lot more world-building information than a pilot can normally convey. But with the expectation that viewers are prepared to sit down for several hours at a time, starting at a time of their choosing, the show can reveal itself the pace of the director’s choosing, instead of the pace demanded by the nature of broadcast media. You simply cannot have a slow-burn plot when you have a 42 minute window to fill, multiple immersion-breaking commercial interruptions, and a fixed time of day for broadcast. I grant that many viewers don’t have the patience for slow-burn plots. But this leads to another of Sense8‘s smart moves: the sci-fi and fantasy fan is precisely the sort of viewer who will give a slow-burn plot a chance to unfold.
Let’s look at the show’s premise now. What really catches my attention is the way these eight characters are such radically different individuals, compelled by their biology to share each other’s lives. Sense8 a sci-fi exploration of the nature of empathy.* I watched the first episode of Sense8 again with this in mind, and it cast Nomi’s gay pride day speech in a new light for me. In that speech she observes that Christian theology treats pride as the chief of the seven deadly sins, but does not include hate on the list of sins at all. This observation is powerful: it will stay with me for a long time.
This emphasis on practical empathy stood out for me because of what a radical contrast it makes with other popular slow-burn television dramas, like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones. In those shows, many of the lead heroes are deeply hateful people. In fact they’re ruthless, spiteful, aggressive, territorial, demanding, and violent. They are shows about terrible people doing terrible things; they presuppose a kind of social Darwinist, dog-eat-dog world. Shows like House, and (I almost regret to say it) Sherlock, are shows about characters who are on the side of the angels but they are nonetheless terrible people, incapable of normal human feelings. Moffat’s Sherlock proudly declares himself a “high functioning sociopath.” And we’re supposed to admire him for that. In Game of Thrones, as another example, we’re treated to numerous instances of artfully-shot sexual violence, followed by hand-wringing pronouncements from fans and the show’s writers about the importance of telling the victim’s stories and showing the violence they endure for what it really is.
Then comes Sense8, a show about people, some good, some bad, most of them both, compelled by their circumstances to identify with each other, compelled to psychologically put themselves in each other’s shoes.** They see themselves reflected in mirrors as another person in the cluster. They feel each other’s heartbreak and trauma. They hear each other’s ear-worms. They fall in love with each other. They kiss and have sex with each other — there’s a lot of sexuality in this show. A lot of homoerotic sexuality, too. But it isn’t really sexuality for the sake of prurience. It’s sexuality for the sake of portraying the different ways that different people love each other. Love, not violence, seems to me a much better way to make an audience care about people whose lives are different from their own. As we saw several times in the series, but most triumphantly in episode 12, this is a show in which characters win their victories by empathy, co-operation, teamwork, and compassion. We’re now at a place in pop culture where a story about empathy, compassion, and co-operation, is radical and edgy and boundary-pushing. And that, I strongly suspect, I strongly hope, is how Sense8 will change television.
If you don’t mind, let’s look at what I think is a big fault in the delivery of this premise. Bringing eight major characters together makes the show very complicated. Viewers who aren’t paying close attention might be unsure who is who, whether we’re watching present events or flashbacks, what’s happening in the world and what’s happening inside someone’s mind. I suppose the producers wanted to spread the story around the world as much as possible; and besides, eight characters alliterate nicely with the word “sensate”. But this gives us very little time to explore each character’s backstory and depth. The result is that most of these characters feel a bit wooden, sometimes more “checklist on a Facebook page” characters than real people. Had I been designing the show, I would have written only four or five of them. We’d have more time to get to know them that way. Indeed one of the sensates is a sadly disappointing character: Riley Blue, an actress whose other work shows how talented she is. Here in Sense8 Middleton’s talents seem unused: she’s doing the best she can with a poorly written character. Through most of the series Riley has almost nothing to do. Late in the series we’re shown a trauma in her backstory: one which I identified with very strongly. But she doesn’t seem to have skills she can contribute to the rest of the team. Other members of the team include a martial artist, a crack driver, a scientist, an actor and grifter. Riley’s skill as a DJ seems out of place; it’s not a skill the other cluster members need. (Not yet? Hard to predict.) In the last episode Riley is captured by the villains and needs to be rescued — by the heart-of-gold handsome-prince American cop, no less– the same tired old “damsel in distress” trope that made the Wachowski’s last offering, Jupiter Ascending, into a high-res failure.
Having said all that, I still think that for its television value, and nature of its heroes, Sense8 will change television. The anti-heroes of Breaking Bad or House of Cards are fascinating to watch, but we should not want to be like such people. We should want to be like the Sensates: people of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, languages, and even different moral codes, nonetheless learning to get along with each other and help each other. Because that’s the human race: seven billion people, different from each other in thousands of ways, who have to learn to get along.
I might want someone like Sherlock Holmes or Frank Underwood on my side. But I want people like Kala, Nomi, and Capheus in my life.
In fact, I want such people in my head.
* The fictive metaphysic of the show rests on recent discoveries in biology concerning co-operation and symbiosis (which the show doesn’t explain in much detail, alas.) I’ve studied a bit of the science of symbiosis: my PhD was in environmental philosophy, after all. Complex forests often have “mother trees” which use underground root networks and mycorrhizal fungi to assist the growth of younger nearby trees. Biologist Lynn Margulis has shown that symbiosis and symbiogenesis — organic co-operation at the cellular level — is a stronger force in evolutionary biology than competition. Scientists have also discovered structures in our brains called “mirror neurons” which allow us to learn from each other and experience another person’s emotional state as if it was one’s own.
** This is a point that writer JMS has alluded to before: in his flagship show Babylon 5, an alien character named Delenn says that “Humans share one unique quality: they build communities. If the Narns or the Centauri or any other race built a station like this, it would be used only by their own people. But everywhere Humans go, they create communities out of diverse, and sometimes hostile, populations. It is a great gift and a terrible responsibility–one that cannot be abandoned.”