MAY 14, 2017: SECOND THOUGHTS:
This is really just me walking myself through the pilot trying to find a narrative pattern. There wasn’t one. It’s thinking out loud if you will. I’m not going to delete it because there’s good stuff in the comments, but I’d skip ahead to the Episode 1 and 2 post.
JULY 27, 2015
Warning: TL,DR: I saw a TV pilot that made me crazy so I watched it twice more to see how I’d fix it. I still don’t know, but I wrote three thousand words about why I couldn’t figure it out. Also the show is really good, so plow through the pilot and then settle in for the remaining eleven episodes. It’s worth it. Oh, and it’s definitely R rated, so don’t watch it with the kids or if graphic sex and violence and full frontal nudity appall you. Also HUGE SPOILERS IN THIS POST. Last week, I decided to wind down before bed by trying out a new-to-me TV show, Sense8 the latest effort from Andy and Lana Wachowski, who brought us The Matrix and bullet time, and their co-creator and co-writer Michael J. Straczynski. An hour later, I was frowning at the TV; a good reaction to a pilot is not “I don’t understand most of that.” But I was really comfortable and I liked some of the characters, so I clicked on the second episode, and four hours later I was finishing up episode five, completely hooked. I finished the twelve-episode series in two more days, and then tried to process what I’d just seen. It was brilliant, it was trite; it was great characterization and terrific acting, it was too much exposition and too slight character development; it was amazing production values and brilliant visuals, it was confusing transitions and squandered story real estate; it was challenging ideas about gender and identity, it was bogged down by theme-mongering. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff probably said it best: “I watched Netflix’s Sense8 and don’t know if it’s a travesty or a whacked-out masterpiece.” I don’t think it’s a travesty, I think it’s a masterpiece whacked out of shape in places by self-indulgence. But I’m still going to be there for the next season (come on, Netflix, renew it already).
MAJOR SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. ALSO: This is series is rated beyond R. Full frontal nudity, graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic birth images, graphic everything. Most of it is entirely justified by the story, but still, this is not something to watch with the kids.
The worst episode in the series is the pilot which is what I concentrated on tonight, after thinking about the series for a couple of days. It’s titled “Limbic Resonance” which should have been a big clue that there was opaque pretension coming up. It opens on a blonde woman in white robe screaming in pain on a mattress in derelict cathedral. (Later we find out that her name is Angelika. I know, I know.) A man named Jonas appears and talks to her, telling her to be strong, but nothing he’s saying is making anything clearer: she’s whimpering that she can’t do it (what?), he’s telling her she has to give birth (she’s not pregnant), then she screams and eight images are interspersed with her thrashing about: a Latino man in a cathedral, a platinum punk blonde on a dark rooftop, an Asian woman doing Tai Chi in the sunlight, a man dancing at a rave, an Indian woman in a lab coat on a staircase, a cop in a car rolling by, a black man in a bus, a woman in a robe giving herself an injection . . . they all catch glimpeses of her, surprised, but the visions only last for seconds each, except for the cop in the car who sees her in the middle of the road. Then we’re back in the derelict church and a creepy gray-haired guy appears in the gloom whispering in the woman’s ear, threatening her and Jonas in a soothing voice, and then he walks through the doorway for real, and she shoots herself and falls back dead. Roll titles and my eyes.
Okay, the writers set themselves an impossible task because this series has eight protagonists, none of which are Angel, Jonas, or the Creepy Guy whose name is Whispers. They’re the eight people we caught glimpses of. The problem isn’t that we don’t know who they are, it’s that we don’t know what the hell is going on. I’ve watched the pilot three times, the entire series all the way through, and I still don’t know how Angelika gave birth to a connection between the eight or how Whispers was in her head or what Jonas was doing there. This is the set-up scene for an hour of story that’s all set-up, and all I got was seven minutes of confusion. Seven minutes, by the way, is about than ten percent of this episode. That’s a lot of story real estate to squander, especially since it doesn’t engage the reader. Frankly, I could spare Angel, Jonas, and Whispers.
Still the connection has been made, the story starts, with about fifty-three minutes to set up eight characters, get them in conflict, and make us care. Okay, that’s probably not possible. How about introduce eight characters and make us care? Yeah, there’s not enough time for that, either. So what have we got to work with? Eight characters who will turn out to span from agreeable to fascinating, all beautifully acted. A really intriguing premise that’s fun to watch unfold. Eight different cities and cultures that are about to collide. Eight people who, by the end of the second episode, will at least be in trouble if not in conflict. So the pilot has to show us eight interesting people and get the premise started. This is where it falls apart.
The pilot bounces from character to character at intervals ranging from two and a half minutes to thirty seconds, not long enough to intrigue us and worse, not long enough to start a story, especially since the first character is a new one, a little boy, who’s being called to by a spooky little girl wandering through a derelict building; the boy turns into the cop from the intro who turns a corner and sees Angel shoot herself, and then you see him jerking awake. It was all a dream. This thing is already incoherent and they start with a flashback in a dream. I said impolite things to the screen.
And then, just I’m getting ready to turn it off, they do something brilliant. Will, the cop, has a pounding headache, and there’s music blaring in the apartment next door. He goes over and bangs on the door and then opens it, and the apartment is empty and silent, and then it morphs into a club in London where Riley, the platinum blonde from the rooftop in the beginning is the DJ, playing the music that Will heard. It’s a beautiful way to begin to show a connection between them, as elegant as the whole flashback/dream thing was clunky. I’m not confused. I know these two are part of the eight and their link is beginning. This is story. So we had Will for two minutes, we have Riley for two minutes as she goes outside and meets two stoner friends who introduce her to a dealer named Nyx (there’s some foreboding for you) who wants them to come to his place to try something new.
I’m a little worried about Riley, especially since she has the migraine they’re all going to get, but her two minutes are up and the story shifts to Lito in Mexico who’s about to blow a priest away in the movie he’s shooting except he has that headache and he blows his line instead.
Less that two minutes later, we’re in Seoul with Sun, the CFO of her father’s firm, and she clearly has a problem that’s not made better when a pig of an executive dismisses her with a sexist remark and goes off with her jerk of a brother, who tells her to get them coffee as she silently curls her hand into a fist under her phone. Oh, I want to see more of Sun. I like Will, I think Riley’s in trouble and I’m worried about her so there’s foreshadowiung, but I’m really hoping I get to see Sun poison her brother’s coffee; that is, with Sun I’m finally getting story because I’m finally getting conflict.
But that’s our two minutes with Sun and now we’re back with Riley. Her pal has told Nyx about the vision she had the previous night, and Nyx plays the exposition fairy and talks about limbic resonance. Yeah, I’ve seen this three times and I still don’t care what that is, but he has a drug that will enhance it. Or something. But Riley’s got that migraine so she begs off, and a minute in, the story shifts to . . .
Kala who does on-the-nose as-you-know dialogue with her father, who actually says “I know,” to everything she tells him. The fun part is that she hears thunder even though it’s a sunny day because . . .
It’s raining on a funeral in Berlin. Wolfgang is walking behind his grandfather’s coffin with his best friend, Felix, when his neo-nazi cousin, Steiner, comes up and pretty much introduces himself as Wolfgang’s antagonist by talking trash. I’m grateful for the clarity, especially since Wolfgang is completely unfazed. I like Wolfgang although I have deep suspicions that given his general attitude and the looks of his family, Wolfgang is not a Fuzzy Bunny.
And now we’re in Nairobi, with Cepheus the bus driver, whose mother is dying, whose bus business is failing, and who is dirt poor, but who still has an incandescent smile. Thank god they got an actor with incredible charm to play this guy because he is a Fuzzy Bunny. His bus is named Van Damn, painted with pictures of Jean Claude (I like his spelling better), and the Muscles from Brussels is his patron saint. This could be a Disney after school special if Mom wasn’t dying of AIDS. Cepheus gets a minute and a half and then we’re with . . .
Nomi and her lover Amanita who are having happy sex because Nomi has that headache. No story there.
A minute and a half later, Lito is in dressing room trying to get his head back into character and dealing with a hard-on, possibly because he’s linked to Nomi who just came her brains out. The actress in the scene he just screwed up comes in and offers to help him out with that, and he tells her he’s in a realtionship with somebody he loves. That’s nice, but mostly this scene is played for laughs because Lito has basically been humping the furniture trying to get rid of his erection. Yeah, I have no idea what any of this is doing in here; it took me three viewings to make the connection that his hard-on was Noni’s.
And now we’re back with Wolfgang, whose aunt and uncle hug him and tell him to go pay his respects to his father’s grave. Wolfgang goes to the grave and pees on it. I love Wolfgang. In a minute and a half, he’s blown all the other characters out of the water. I know he’s a thug, but he has style.
A minute and a half later we’re back with Cepheus, whose rival, the Bat Van is getting all the customers. A man gets on board and hands him a chicken as payment; when the chicken flaps out of his hands. . .
. . . it lands on Sun’s desk in Seoul, and shortly after that Sun refuses a call from a banker, looking at red folder on her desk seriously.
I don’t know if this recap is capturing how freaking chaotic this is, but I was actively hostile at this point. I stuck around because I was worried about Riley and I wanted to see what Wolfgang was going to do to Steiner and Sun was going to do to her brother. The rest of these people had no stories. Perfectly nice people, but nobody to worry about.
And we’re back with Noni, and for two minutes we get more of the Great Romance of Noni and Amanita, except I’m a romance writer and dear god, did they screw that up. Look, I’m perfectly willing to believe these two are in love, they’re giddy around each other, but to prove it, there’s a flashback to their first Pride celebration where Amanita stood up for Noni and Noni knew she’d love her forever because of that. That’s conditional, Noni. You’re supposed to love her for who she is, not for what she does for you. It’s such a knee jerk amateur romance writer move, plus it’s a flashback. I’m telling you, if it wasn’t for Riley, Wolfgang, and Sun, I’d have bailed then.
So two minutes of that and we’re with Kala, who’s a lovely girl, but so freaking innocent and humble, plus her scene isn’t a scene: she sits at the shrine of Ganesh and gives the elephant god her exposition: she’s engaged to marry a rich man who loves her but she doesn’t love him. Since we’ve already seen that her father adores her and wouldn’t dream of forcing her into a marriage, this would be a yawn even if it wasn’t Kala’s second spree of exposition. When you feel really sorry for the actress stuck with a scene, you know things are bad.
Two and half minutes later, thank Ganesh, we’re back with Wolfgang, whose buddy Felix plays the exposition fairy, talking about the safe Wolfgang’s father could never crack. Guess what safe Wolfgang and his buddy are going to crack an hour before Cousin Steiner arrives to blow it open? I’ll allow it, it’s Wolfgang.
Except that was only a minute of Wolfgang and now I have two and a half minutes of Noni back at Pride watching a performance art piece that must have some significance to this story, but I’ve watched it three times, and I still can’t make a connection. You know what would be good to know about Noni here? That she’s a former hacktivist with mad computer skills. She’s actually a great, strong, active character, but all we get of her in the pilot is Noni and Amanita 4Ever. And even that’s a waste because the fact that they really are bonded is beautifully shown without all schmaltz in the rest of the series. I’m annoyed about all the story real estate squandered here, especially since it makes them seem so much less than they really are.
Two and a half minutes of that (during which Noni sees Angel in the spotlight) and we’re in the cop car with Will and his partner Diego, cruising past gangbangers on Chicago’s south side, with a moment of exposition as Diego says he’d understand why Will would hate gangbangers after what they did to his old man. Will, the designated Good Guy for the series, doesn’t hate them, but then there’s a report of gunshots, and they turn the siren on . . .
And the series finally begins to make sense, because now we’re with Wolfgang who’s trying to crack the safe and who stops because he hears the siren. Thirty seconds later, Riley takes off her headphones because she can hear the tumblers fall in Wolfgang’s safe. Thirty seconds later, Will runs into a building and finds a kid gangbanger bleeding out. The constant cuts back and forth were driving me crazy before, but these even faster cuts make sense: three people in high tension situations unconsciously connecting. This is interesting. Also exciting because, hey, story.
Then we’re back at Wolfgang who takes a break, while Felix starts to freak because Steiner’s coming any minute. Will gets the kid to the ER which refuses to take him–they don’t do gunshots–until he stares them down. Wolfgang is watching a reality talent show, and his favorite loses as he flashes back to his abusive father and then goes back to work to crack the safe his father couldn’t. Hated the flashback, but hey, it’s Wolfgang. Will’s at the ER arguing with the nurse. Wolfgang’s out of time, Steiner pulls up in front, Wolfgang’s rock steady, cracks the safe, takes the diamonds, escapes with his high tech alarm override as Steiner brutally breaks in, no finesse, to blow the safe which is now empty. The kid in the ER is okay, and Will doesn’t smack the nurse who asks him a completely obnoxious question. This is great storytelling.
This is when I said, “Okay, I’ll keep watching.” Will is too White Knight, but the actor who plays him sells it without making him vanilla. Wolfgang is terrific. I’m still worried about Riley. I’m really hoping Sun poisons her asshole brother’s coffee. I bear no ill will toward anyone else and hope they actually get stories. And I’m really, really interested in seeing what happens when they connect. And good news, there’s still ten minutes left, and we’re back with Riley, whose friends have dragged her to Nyx’s place and are smoking dope while she sits apart with her headphones on because she has that headache. Nyx talks her into trying the dope and after one puff she’s in Chicago, looking at Diego, who thinks he’s talking to Will. Except he is talking to Will, who gets in the car, looks out the window and sees Riley. Then she’s gone and he sees the derelict church where Angel shot herself, goes inside and sees Riley. Really Riley, not an illusion, a Riley who says, “This is where she died.” Will says, “Do you live here?” Riley shakes her head and says, “London.” Will says “What are you doing here?” Riley says that she doesn’t know where she is and Will says, “Chicago.” Riley says, “America? I’ve never been to America.” They’re really in the same place, even though Riley’s stoned in London. They’re having a conversation and then shots are fired and Riley’s back in Nyx’s apartment where her idiot friends are robbing Nyx, and Will’s there, too, staring around in a daze, and then he’s gone and there’s mayhem, all three men bloodied and down, Riley spattered with blood. And that’s the end of the episode. Grrrr.
So as I was saying, this pilot has major narrative problems including a confusing beginning, an abrupt and unsatisfying ending, and a chaotic, confusing, and often lame middle. It feels as though the writers were in love with Nomi and Amanita being in love, and squandered narrative real estate on them without really showing how dimensional they were. They clearly had fun writing Wolfgang, but they kind of phoned Will in as the Good Cop, a problem saved because they cast a good actor to rise above that. They had a goldmine in Sun, but they saved her for later, they played Lito for laughs, which shortchanged him (he’s a simple guy, but he’s not stupid), they stuck the Van Damn label on Cepheus and Arranged Marriage label on Kala and left them hanging, and then they drenched Riley in blood and left her with three possible corpses after showing us the scars of her suicide attempt. The truth is, most of the eight are fascinating people, worth of a story in their own rights, but you can’t tell it from the pilot.
I watched this three times, trying to figure out how to fix this. Show Noni hacking or at least doing something besides telling Amanita how much she loves her. Maybe foreshadow what Sun does with all that anger, that’s brilliant. Get Cepheus’s antagonist in there sooner; that’s a lovely, complex conflict. Poor Kala never does get a conflict worthy of her, but she does get her moments in the last episodes; I guess showing her doing something competent and quick thinking to foreshadow how she’ll shine at the end would help. And Lito, have him not hump the woodwork while he’s talking himself back into character; it makes him a clown and he’s not. That is, he’s not a deep thinker, but he’s quick thinking and he’s a good actor, he deserves more respect.
Fortunately it gets better after this, in fact, it has a lot of moments that are absolutely brilliant, but I think maybe the problem is summed up in something one of the writers, J. Michael Straczynski, said: “It’s a global story told on a planetary scale about human transcendence and what it ultimately means to be human in a contemporary society.” Maybe if they’d started with “It’s a story about eight people in trouble who discover who they really are as they work together to survive,” and left the Theme and Message in the subtext, the pilot would have been at Wolfgang levels for the whole sixty-seven minutes.
Don’t let the pilot put you off. The series ramps up slowly, but all eight actors are terrific, and the story goes in fascinating directions, with wonderful moments and a finale that provides closure with the promise of amazing things to come if Netflix ever renews it. You should watch it. It really is worth studying, not just for how it goes wrong–big ambitions often go wrong–but for the many things it does right. Also, Wolfgang.